The most important thing to know about any horror movie is this: is it scary? And Annabelle is very, very scary. So if that’s what you’re looking for, you can skip the rest of this review and book your cinema tickets right now. You’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth in goosebumps and jump scares.
But while it’ll definitely give you the creeps, Annabelle won’t stand up to close scrutiny. Set a couple of years before The Conjuring, in a small Californian community where everyone goes to church on Sundays and no-one locks their doors, this is the origin story of the creepy doll that’s locked safely away in the ghostbusting Warrens’ basement. Turns out, she wasn’t always evil: she was bought as a gift by medical student John (Ward Horton) for his very pregnant wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis). Mia is a doll collector, and this doll is the one she wanted to complete her collection. So far, so adorable.
Unfortunately for the happy couple, Mia isn’t the only one who likes dolls. Their next door neighbours’ long lost daughter has joined a Satanic cult, and while the TV blares warnings about Charles Manson and his Family, the Disciples of the Ram are coming home to kill their parents. While John and Mia escape with their lives, something nasty has been summoned in their house, and it’s attached to that doll…
Looking at the Annabelle doll, you sort of expect that the movie will become a Chucky-style murderous doll caper. But it doesn’t. The doll is completely irrelevant to the plot, while at the same time being absolutely crucial to the film. The demon could have attached itself to literally anything; the fact that it’s a scary-looking doll doesn’t mean anything, and the doll itself never actually does anything. You could drag and drop most of the scares in Annabelle into a Paranormal Activity movie and not notice the difference.
But grounding the evil forces in something that looks so utterly nightmarish lends even the sillier jump scares a bit of oomph. Without the Annabelle doll, this movie would be another forgettable Rosemary’s Baby wannabe (check out the names of the main characters, and try not to roll your eyes). The doll is what makes it memorable. Even when she’s not in a scene, you’ll find yourself waiting for her to appear, and that anticipation is the fun part.
Other fun parts include the melodramatic screeching score; the mobile camera, which swoops around cast members and tilts into Dutch angles so extreme the cameraman should’ve lost his balance; and buckets of references to other horror movies, from 70s classics to producer James Wan’s own ghost-ridden oeuvre. Director John R. Leonetti was director of photography on Dead Silence, Insidious, and The Conjuring, so it’s not surprising that some visual references to those movies were sneaked in; it’s also nice that there’s not a huge difference in quality, production-wise, between The Conjuring and its spinoff.
Sadly, the not-fun parts include embarrassingly trite dialogue, a daft ending, and the revival of a racist stereotype that’s somehow managed to creep out of the same dustbin the characters keep stuffing the doll into. The movie might be set in the late 60s, but this is 2014, and there’s no excuse for such crappy writing. The last ten minutes really let down a movie that’s got enough genuine scares to overshadow its occasional misfires – no-one’s scared of a faulty sewing machine, but that scene in the basement is properly terrifying.
In the end, Annabelle is a fun ride, but in comparison to The Conjuring’s slick and well-designed rollercoaster, it’s a rickety old end-of-the-pier attraction that feels like it could fall apart at any moment. And you definitely wouldn’t want to get on it again after the first time.
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