Dolls get a bad rap in horror. As with clowns, rocking horses and carnivals they’ll show up regularly as some sort of perversion on childhood. Among others we’ve had the mischievous Chucky, the toy from Poltergeist and the human one in May. Now following on from an intriguing, but ultimately pointless, detour in last year’s old fashioned (i.e. clichéd) The Conjuring, Annabelle has gotten her own movie. Reuniting the team of director James Wan (now in producer role) and cinematographer John. R. Leonettit (now in director role), this prequel gives her origin story, whilst also laying the potential for a number of other projects linked to the mythos of the original. Now I appreciate the first one had a lot of fans (so if you were one, please take my complaints with a slight bag of salt), but based on the strength of the first two this is unlikely to be a series I become a devotee of. It’s not that The Conjuring was bad per se. It’s that there was seldom a moment in it I didn’t feel at least half an hour ahead of the characters or the action. Yes, this traditional element seemed to really appeal to a lot of people, and I’m fine with that. Just to me that feels like forgiving a lack of imagination because of cinematic heritage.
Anyway, true to the form of franchise entries, Annabelle is much the same. In short, after moving house a husband (Horton) gives his pregnant wife (Wallis) what he thinks to be the perfect present – a rare doll that completes her collection of scary looking Victorian toys. It’s all going so well for them until that night they get attacked by members of a Satanist cult. Saved from the hands of their attackers, our couple think they’re over the worst. But aside from blood spill and trauma, the invaders have also left behind an insidious (a word I use knowingly) entity that threatens them and their yet unborn kid. From here it’s like a box ticking exercise in which the makers have set out to deliver a movie that feels like how a horror movie should. An evil force that wants to target a child? Check. A spouse that’s skeptical about their partner’s mental state for much of the first 2 acts? Check. A mystic bookshop keeper (Woodard), who’s in touch with the ‘spiritual’ and mostly serves to advance the plot? Check. It feels like we’ve seen these sorts of dynamics so often even these last 5 Blumhouse heavy years. The frights are mostly fairly textbook, with the same kind of escalation you’ll have likely seen a dozen times before – since ancient evils never seems to start at full strength. There’s a few thumps at first, stuff appearing where it shouldn’t be before a healthy serving of dramatic irony follows. Then for the next half hour, after a jump sequence or two, the leads squabble about if something’s there or not before a religious figure (Amendola) gets heavily involved to pre-empt a climax that ramps up the themes in place of a real story. Come act 3, where the shit hits the proverbial fan, Annabelle’s gradually built up her full powers. We know this because it’s the usual doors slamming, items flying and lights flickering. Somewhere in the dark a baby wails and a mother thinks about how her role as a parent has gradually become her one character trait these last 90 minutes, and goes to save her young up and coming from the clutches of evil. Chuck in a demon that looks a little too much like the demon from another movie (that looked a little too much like Darth Maul to start with) then you have it: a generic just-add water horror movie.
To be fair, there are some surprise ingredients in the thick economy horror soup. And these chunky parts offer a lot of potential. As alluded to above, Annabelle opens not with dolly hi-jinx, but a fairly tense home invasion which will do rather well in fooling you that you’re in for a better film. It’s visceral, exciting and really quite unsettling (particularly the initial reveal). Sequences like this reinforce that we actually have a perfectly adequate team at work here, that are above the material they’re offering us. Whilst there are some other very effective bits (one involving a door and one an elevator), if an audience feels passive rather than involved then they’re ultimately wasted. The acting is also strong throughout, with the cast doing well to sell their fear considering they’ve likely seen it all before too. And there’s good chemistry between the leads, which adds some stakes to the action. But this also gets punctured as the finale’s robbed of its emotional impact by another character’s arc conveniently rising too rapidly from the depths of underdevelopment to eclipse the main one.
As with Wan’s similarly doll-based Dead Silence, Annabelle feels like an artistic compromise where the studio likely pushed genre enthusiasts towards delivering a product to be consumed by genre novices. That’s not a criticism of potential viewers – horror fans have to start somewhere. If you haven’t seen many horrors (in which case I’m surprised you’re on this site) then you could do a lot worse than starting here – in a workman like way it’ll introduce you to some of the standard beats and be a relatively fun learning experience. But if you’ve got a seasoned palate or want something new then I don’t know there’s much to recommend. Across the Atlantic even fans of The Conjuring are turning on this for feeling like an unimaginative follow up. Now that’s got to tell you something, right? It’s maybe an all-round more satisfying franchise entry than Insidious 2 was. But that’s hardly the best company to be in. Leaving the cinema I heard another person complain the movie was ‘boring’. I disagree – throughout it I never got bored. But I wasn’t on edge either and that, after all, is why we go to these movies.
A few streets over I passed a shop-window full of old-style dolls in long white dresses and they made me shudder.
Knew they can still be creepy.