The Conjuring was the biggest horror film of last year, and one of the highest grossing ever. However it doesn’t lend itself as easily to an immediate follow-up as many more formulaic horrors do. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to cash in on its big success, the producers have instead decided to create a spin-off/prequel centring on the doll Annabelle, which featured briefly in the first film as a memorable if rather unnecessary framing device (is this the first time an inanimate object has been given its own spin-off?)
In my review of The Conjuring last year I described Annabelle as looking “so ludicrously menacing you can’t imagine any girl buying it for a toy”. It didn’t matter so much in the context of that film but here we have a young woman opening a box containing the doll only to smile and declare it ‘beautiful’ just before the camera cuts to its none-more creepy face. They try to get around this a bit by having it be a collector’s item but it still looks ridiculous sitting above a baby’s crib in a nursery.
Annabelle opens with a couple moving into a new house, the husband John is a doctor while the wife Mia is heavily pregnant (blatant reference alert!). Mia collects dolls and John has found the Annabelle doll as a gift for her (the doll isn’t called Annabelle at this point). Soon afterward, their next-door neighbours are murdered in a “satanic cult” ritual, which gives some of the strongest frights in the movie. The murderers are taken out by the police, but not before one (called Annabelle) performs some sort of ritual holding the doll.
From then on the couple find that spooky things start happening in their house. A lot of these are very standard scare tactics; Mia goes to turn the record player off and walks away, it suddenly turns back on! A popcorn maker is left on the stove, it turns on by itself! There are a couple of decent jumps in there but it’s very telegraphed stuff.
Its differences from The Conjuring start to become more apparent here too; one of that film’s more refreshing qualities was the presence of Ed and Lorraine in the haunted house – two people who had been in this kind of situation before and were trying to deduce how to deal with it. Mia knows nothing of the sort and just runs around screaming, reducing Annabelle to much more typical haunted house fare. The Conjuring also invested in some decent actors to class things up, the leads here (Annabelle Wallis and Wade Horton) aren’t terrible just completely bland.
Annabelle gets more and more laughable as it progresses, with the introduction of a weird demon guy stalking Mia. The reveals of him resemble James Wan’s more playful Insidious, and he just looks like a skinny man in a cheap ‘devil’ Halloween costume.
There are a couple of lazily characterised supporting players thrown into the mix too; a priest (Tony Amendola) and a local bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard). Both have brief plots that reach predictable ends, in Woodward’s case one that’s uncomfortable to watch for completely the wrong (and unintended) reasons.
The one advantage Annabelle has over The Conjuring is that is doesn’t try to shove its “true story” basis in your face. Only a couple of unwanted text cards at the end make mention of the “real” Annabelle doll.
Overall Annabelle looks like what it is; a cheaply produced and rushed follow-up. The laziness of the writing is apparent in its blatant foreshadowing, poor dialogue and comically inept (lack of) research into “the occult”. Conjuring director James Wan remains on as a producer but has handed directorial reins over to John R. Leonetti, an experienced cinematographer whose only directorial features are, err, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and The Butterfly Effect 2. A lot of the domestic scenes look like a daytime TV soap opera shot with cheap digital cameras, but to be fair, there are some effective scares in there and Leonetti always shoots Annabelle herself lovingly. Considering that Annabelle is clearly a quick cash-in, it’s better than it could have been.