The handsome, throwback supernatural-horror that made The Conjuring such a big hit last year was expected to translate well into spin-off Annabelle, with the ground work laid nice and smooth from the doll’s appearance in the critically acclaimed James Wan film. What Wan did with The Conjuring last year was nothing short of incredible, with the perfect marriage of sound, style, pacing, and storytelling to make the film a surprise hit and one of the best supernatural horrors of the 21st century. In this genre, the viewer’s mind is his/her own worst enemy, and Wan seemed to understand this better than anyone else.
One such play on our overactive imagination was his subtle nod to Annabelle, a doll based on a real life case, which becomes the vessel for a demonic spirit. The modest Annabelle segments in The Conjuring were just enough to stir up our morbid curiosity about the doll, so a potential spin-off made complete sense, and it was exciting. With directing duties passed to John Leonetti, this spin-off/prequel to The Conjuring came gunning for some high standards, but it missed the mark completely.
Leonetti manages Annabelle with some style, continuing Wan’s love of effective musical scores – he even knows exactly when silence is necessary – and some nice camera work; but the story is where Annabelle fails the most. We are rewound from the early 70s to the late 60s – a period that looks much more modern than James Wan’s vintage love affair – and introduced to Mia (Annabelle Walles – appropriate name, no?) and John (Ward Horton), a mildly interesting couple who is expecting a baby. Mia likes her dolls collection, so John goes out and gifts her the worst looking doll he can find – and the one she has always wanted. It’s a normal doll, and aside from it’s terrifying features, harmless until a pair of cultists break into the house and attempt to murder our protagonists. One of the cultists – Annabelle – is killed while holding the doll, bleeding into its eyes and hence beginning our foray into possessed inanimate object territory. The doll becomes a plaything for the devil, edging through the three steps of demonic activity – infestation, oppression, and possession – and becoming increasingly obvious until Mia and John struggle against the haunting.
Being set in a small apartment as compared to an old rickety house is one major difference between The Conjuring and Annabelle, leaving much less room for atmosphere – of which there is virtually zero throughout the film – and relegating the film’s creepiest scene to the dark storage room of the apartment building. But instead of spending more time in effective settings – and lighting – we are exposed to much more open spaces and brightness than we should be, taking away much of the film’s ability to make us feel unsafe.
Annabelle was made on a smaller budget than it’s predecessor, and it certainly shows in the downgrade of cast. Both Wallis and Horton are average at best when it comes to giving us terrified, sympathetic performances. Strong acting comes from support Alfre Woodard as Evelyn, filling up the lack of the excellent Warren couple from The Conjuring by giving us a likable character who grounds much of the film’s story and helps end the film on a relatively strong note.
Without the directorial touch of James Wan (he serves as a capable producer in this film), Annabelle suffers greatly, with not only scares that are too sparse and infrequent, but mediocre direction from a guy whose past directorial credits include The Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Being the director of photography for The Conjuring – of which Leonetti did a terrific job – doesn’t translate well into directing a spin-off which can keep up the promise of a strong supernatural horror franchise. A combination of lacklustre acting, plodding storytelling, and a lack of atmosphere come together to turn what Wan built towards as a creepy spin-off, into a middle-of-the-road disappointment.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 99 minutes
Annabelle is out now through Roadshow Films