Last year James Wan had a spectacular hit with derivative horror The Conjuring, one of the finest examples in recent times of marketing and hype boosting the reputation of a distinctly average film. The Conjuring falls down largely thanks to the feeling throughout that it is a patchwork movie; one made from countless pieces of more inspired material. And while the occasional borrowing from the past can delight, Wan’s film felt too muddled to reach beyond its myriad progenitors.
It’s most potent trope, however, was its least mined. The film opened with the story of a seemingly possessed doll – the frightening-looking Annabelle – whose appearance later in the movie turned out to be little more than a red herring. When all was said and done, it was that doll’s grotesque face that haunted The Conjuring the most, so news that this diamond in the rough was getting its own movie offered the potential for something more substantially scary. Because, you know, dolls are always disturbing.
Wan knows this only too well, having delved down that particular fright factory for his ventriloquist dummy horror Dead Silence (better than you expect it to be, but no masterpiece). For Annabelle, however, the job has been turned over to The Conjuring and Insidious cinematographer John R Leonetti, while scripting duties go to relative newcomer Gary Dauberman. The general prospect here (and highest hopes) are for a smaller, nastier little horror show than Annabelle‘s older sibling.
From the get-go, however, the movie has some hurdles to jump. As with all the other elements in The Conjuring, Annabelle herself/itself reeks of been-there-done-that. Mention a possessed doll to anybody and the spirit of Child’s Play will loom largest. Acknowledging this, Annabelle strives not to repeat the same old tropes. Anyone queueing up for a ticket expecting to see a murderous doll scurrying around by itself is going to be disappointed. Annabelle herself remains firmly inanimate, that is, as long as nobody’s looking at her. It’s a wise choice, allowing Leonetti’s film to carve itself away from that particular shadow.
So what’s the deal here? Set before the events of The Conjuring, Annabelle is an origin story for that creepy doll, taking us back to the utopian suburbs of California in the late 60’s. Meet attractive young couple John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis, fittingly). They’re church goers, expecting their first child, the sort of folks who leave their doors unlocked at night. However an inexplicable attack by marauding cultists (obviously), changes their lives forever. Mia is wounded, but fortunately not seriously, and her prized possession – said creepy doll – winds up cradled in the dying arms of one of their would-be attackers. Soon after a host of paranormal goings-on start occurring, and suddenly Mia isn’t quite so enamoured with her doll anymore. John throws it away and the couple relocate, now parents to baby Leah.
Yet, surprise surprise, those spooky occurrences aren’t quite behind them. The doll reappears, and before long Mia finds the neighbours’ kids are leaving her disturbing drawings and she’s having a hell of a time getting out of the basement (actually the film’s most arm-prickling sequence). With John working at the hospital all the time, it’s a blessing that Mia has friendly local bookstore owner Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) and open-minded Father Perez (Tony Amendola) to dish out exposition like a tag team.
If I’m starting to sound overtly sarcastic then it’s only partly justified. Annabelle is a very mixed bag, occasionally managing to eke out hair-raising moments, but equally confounded by a number of far less successful elements. Let’s start with some positives.
As with The Conjuring, one of Annabelle‘s strongest assets is its immaculate production design. Where Wan’s film was dwarfed by the luxurious detail of its rustic setting, Annabelle‘s pastel-hued 60’s suburbia is gorgeous enough to rival Mad Men at it’s most decadent. Leonetti’s exemplary photography has been one of the crowning glories of Wan’s recent output, and he certainly extends that same loving touch here (even if, occasionally, his shot selection proves oddly reminiscent of the Paranormal Activity films; vantage points taken from strange, voyeuristic angles).
Horton and Wallis essentially have the majority of the film as a two-hander, and Wallis does some fine work as Mia (clearly named in reference to Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby). She makes the fretful young mother sympathetic and responsive. Horton, however, is less charming, though solid. Between them they afford the story a human heart.
Said story, however, never quite feels as potent as it could’ve been, and as an origin piece, largely marginalises its titular menace in favour of an altogether different puppet master. Where The Conjuring was derivative of others, Leonetti’s film loops right back to Wan, evoking, more than anything, the demonic beasties of Insidious (no bad thing, it turns out). Yet the script is pretty rotten, frequently planting rote dialogue in the mouths of its leads or those poor supporting players.
This sense of unevenness is most evident in the film’s finale, where the tension is admirably ratcheted, only for a less-than-satisfying payoff, one that packs less emotional clout that Leonetti and Dauberman seem to think it does. More frustratingly (especially considering footage from The Conjuring opens the film), Annabelle actively contradicts the little back story we already know about said doll, a strange decision when one considers how much room to maneuver there was here.
Perhaps the most pertinent question is why the hell people keep finding this hideous grinning monstrosity adorable enough to bring into their lives in the first place? That alone stretches credulity to breaking point. But if Annabelle is something of a disappointment, then put it into context of the film it sprang from. They’re about on par in terms of quality. Sadly their (lack of) originality is just as conspicuously consistent.