With a blast of satanic horns, James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ burst onto cinema screens last year to significant critical acclaim and box office success. While most horror films go for cheap scares and copious buckets of gore, ‘The Conjuring’ turned back to the classical horror style of the 60s and 70s, exploring bumps in the night rather than extreme violence, and delivering a truly frightening experience on an unsuspecting audience. And as with any successful horror film, it must become a franchise. First off the block is ‘Annabelle’, a spin-off exploring the origins of the demonic doll of the first film. But is it as terrifying and satisfying as ‘The Conjuring’, or is it as derivative as almost every horror sequel and spin-off ever made?
In the early 1970s, young couple John (Ward Horton) and pregnant Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are terrorised in the middle of the night by members from a satanic cult. One of the intruders, Annabelle Higgins, the estranged daughter of their neighbours, commits suicide in the nursery clutching a large antique doll. The couple move from their suburban home to a city apartment once their daughter Leah is born, but very soon strange things begin to occur, and some presence begins to attack Mia and Leah, all seemingly linked to this particular doll and the intentions of their satanic intruders.
While ‘Annabelle’ is nowhere near as accomplished or as terrifying a work of horror as ‘The Conjuring’, it’s a far more respectful follow-up than most horror sequels. Even with only a year in production and a smaller budget, the visual style established by James Wan is maintained by new director John R. Leonetti, who was the cinematographer on ‘The Conjuring’. Along with DOP James Kniest, he keeps the classic style and 70s texture which adds to the carefully constructed atmosphere of the film. Even if the plot and screenplay by Gary Dauberman isn’t that crash-hot and the performances aren’t overly memorable, this spin-off has learned what made the first so effective and aims for the same bump-in-the-night sledgehammer scares. There are many nods to the classics of the genre, particularly Roman Polanski’s masterpiece ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), though it could have done with borrowing a few more tropes from them. There are plenty of interesting places ‘Annabelle’ threatens to go, but in the end takes a more conventional route.
One of the most striking features of the film is how it handles the titular doll. Annabelle was one of the least terrifying things about ‘The Conjuring’ but certainly gives you the creeps, and it was always difficult to see why anyone would voluntarily have the thing in their house. The film gives the doll a believable backstory as a valuable collector’s item that initially appears benign, but only through contact with Annabelle Higgins does it begin to transform into something horrific. They also err on the side of caution, making the doll a conduit of evil rather than an active participant. It means she doesn’t drive the narrative particularly much, but at least it doesn’t make her ridiculous.
While ‘Annabelle’ is nowhere near as accomplished or as terrifying a work of horror as ‘The Conjuring’, it’s a far more respectful follow-up than most horror sequels.
The performances are serviceable, Horton and Wallis making a believable All-American couple. Wallis has occasional trouble tackling the more intense sequences and Horton is perhaps a tad smug at points, but they’re a refreshing change from the supermodel teenagers that populate horror films these days. Tony Amendola and Alfre Woodard fill the obligatory roles of the family priest and the spiritual next door neighbour, unimaginative renderings of familiar tropes. The stand-out, oddly enough, is the baby playing Leah. IMDb didn’t list her name in the credits, but this baby bubbles with energy and brightens up the screen, timing beautifully with some of the film’s comic moments. It’s strange to congratulate an infant for a performance in a film, but this little one left a particularly strong impression.
There are a number of great scary sequences early on, but there’s little here we haven’t seen before and the climax is very similar to ‘The Conjuring’, and in the end that’s where ‘Annabelle’ stumbles. It pays far more attention to what made the first film a success than most horror franchises have in the past, but this makes its shortfalls all the more obvious. Contrary to expectations, ‘Annabelle’ is a pretty effective little horror film with some clever sequences that get the heart pumping. If only it had been bolder with its plot, or more audacious with its references to other films, it might have been a genuinely great horror spin-off. Instead, it just sits as a pleasant surprise.