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'Annabelle' conjures up lots of scares

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

In "Annabelle," life appears oh-so ordinary for a young married couple living in southern California in the late 1960s: palm-tree-lined streets, a tidy bungalow, a baby on the way. It's suburbia painted in soothing golden hues.

The opening scenes create an inviting normalcy that's turned upside down after members of a satanic cult invade the couple's home following a killing spree. Coincidentally, John Form (Ward Horton) has just given his wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis), a gift: a rare vintage doll in a white wedding dress. It's as creepy as dolls come, and the perfect conduit for a demon.

"Annabelle," the prequel to last summer's hit horror movie "The Conjuring," explains the demonic doll prominent to the storyline in the latter. The doll gets a far bigger role here, haunting the family from one home to another. And "Annabelle" delivers more scares than its predecessor, using age-old tricks: doors closing for no reason, a crayon rolling across the floor, lights flickering. They're simple, but they work.

Director John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer behind the "Insidious" films and "The Conjuring," delivers a steady, if sometimes slow, buildup in "Annabelle." Although he covers no new ground — things are largely predictable — he pays tribute to horror classics such as "Rosemary's Baby."

Horton and Wallis make an attractive on-screen couple, but their characters fail to cultivate empathy beyond Wallis' role as a mother worried about her baby's safety. She comes across as a very soft-spoken Stepford Wife. Veteran actress Alfre Woodard is the warm, welcoming neighbor, and Tony Amendola is the priest (there's always a priest), but they add little to the drama.

In the end, "Annabelle" follows the rules of horror, giving moviegoers their fair share of scares, and even a harrowing scene or two (just wait for the creepy basement). And that's the name of the game.

gtasker@detroitnews.com

'Annabelle'

GRADE: C+

Rating R for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror

Running time: 98 minutes