DIR: John R. Leonetti • WRI: Gary Dauberman • PRO: Peter Safran, James Wan • DOP: James Kniest • ED: Tom Elkins • MUS: Joseph Bishara • CAST: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard
Let’s face it, when you create a doll as inherently creepy looking as Annabelle you’re sort of asking for a demon to possess it. An evil spirit would be the only thing on earth (or beyond) to find this caricature of fugly appealing. Annabelle’s carved grin was first seared onto the brains of audiences in the surprise 2013 horror movie hit The Conjuring, wherein she made a brief appearance as a highly dangerous piece of married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren’s haunted-bits-and-bobs collection. In the grand tradition of horror films somehow always becoming franchises, it was decided that this particular inanimate object could carry a film all on its own. Demon dollies are a ‘thing’ in Hollywood horror after all. Therein lays the problem at the core of this film however: it offers the viewer nothing that they have not seen before.
The film focuses on the blissfully newlywed couple John (Ward Horton) and Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis) who are eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. They seem set on the fast-track to an idyllic suburban life in their idyllic suburban 1970s American neighbourhood. We learn that Mia has a penchant for collecting antique dolls and is thrilled when her husband presents her with a rare collector’s item named Annabelle – a porcelain doll with an elaborate white gown and soulless eyes. It is quite evident why the dollmaker did not feel the need to make many Annabelles, but I digress.
More than one snigger arose in the theatre when Mia expressed genuine delight at the horrific creature presented to her and did not proceed to burn it straight away. Determined to give her new-born child nightmares, Mia places Annabelle in pride of place in the nursery room. Outside the Gordons’ domestic bubble, however, things are not all well as the threat of Charles Manson-esque cults looms ever larger, dominating the news headlines and people’s imaginations. These two worlds collide when the Gordons’ neighbours are brutally murdered by their own estranged daughter and her fellow cult-following boyfriend. The violence spills over into the Gordons’ home but they are saved in the nick of time by the local authorities. As it turns out, however, the intruders left something far more sinister then a mere blood splatter lingering over the lives of the young couple and their child.
The story is not a new one but that’s ok, with horror it doesn’t have to be. Rather, it’s what the film does with the classical horror tropes that matters; how they use them, subvert them, twist them to make the scares all the more shocking and instil a sense of dread within the audience. This is where the director of The Conjuring James Wan succeeded. The haunted house shtick is older than cinema itself yet Wan created a genuinely tense and chilling atmosphere through skilled editing and carefully composed shots, proving all it takes is a little bit of ingenuity to breathe new life into a tired idea. Annabelle lacks this finesse. That’s not to say it’s all bad but we’re being offered nothing new. Demonic spirits? Then a Catholic priest must be involved in some way! Oh, and cults! A cult must somehow be involved! Those crazy cult people, always worshipping the devil!
There are plenty of scares to be had here- in particular one chase scene that makes very good use of shadow and staircases- yet the impact of these scenes is greatly lessened by the consistent visual and aural notes that reveal what is about to happen before it happens. I will give Leonetti credit though in that the film never verges on the edge of ridiculousness which, considering a doll is the face of your main antagonist, would have been very easy to do. The film at least takes itself seriously, which prompts the audiences to also take it as such.
Technical skill is also in abundance throughout. In particular, cinematographer James Kniest really captures the era in which the film is set through the use of a distinctly ’70s colour palette, creating a very pleasing visual aesthetic. The acting is pretty solid too, though Alfre Woodard is woefully underused and her character arc a bit… problematic, shall we say. It’s frustrating that all the elements for a great horror are present in this film yet when combined together here on screen create only a spectacular ‘meh’.
To sum up, Annabelle should satisfy those looking for a quick thrill but nothing else. This film breaks no new ground with the horror genre but rather is content to flex its muscles in the tried and true tropes of its cinematic predecessors.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Annabelle is released 10th October 2014