Young – and expecting – couple John and Mia are attacked in their home by wild-eyed occultists who are killed when the police arrive. Over time, they begin to be haunted by the spirit of one of the occultists who transferred her soul into a doll in the nursery before she died.
Set-up as a kind of spin-off from THE CONJURING (2013), ANNABELLE is sadly too-familiar and generic to justify the same rapturous applause. Nevertheless, this film has some well-worked and technically remarkable set-pieces. If you’re looking for a scary movie, you could in all honestly do a lot worse at the cinema.
ANNABELLE on screen looks a lot like INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013), and so it should – director John R Leonetti was the cinematographer on those films.
Leonetti does have some fireworks in store. The set-design and meticulous attention to detail means the movie does look like it was filmed in the 60s. But that’s not his trump card – that comes in the form of his grandiose standalone scenes. There are at least 3:
- The murder sequence at the beginning of the movie is shot with an exciting style that makes you wonder whether we could be in for a real tour-de-force – it runs like a graphic and brutal REAR WINDOW (1954).
- Mia cooks a special dinner for husband John but of course, he’s late, prioritising work over her. In one side of the frame the camera focuses agonisingly on the front door while Mia scrapes the leftovers into the bin.
- The sewing machine and popcorn suspense scene (don’t worry you’ll understand) is actually worthy of comparison with Hitchcock.
In what comically seems like a take on LABYRINTH (1986) via ROSEMARY’s BABY (1968), ANNABELLE hurdles toward an overblown and entirely fun finale with the demon playing games with Mia in order to elicit her soul – including a grim sequence where Mia thinks she has just battered her baby to death on the crib itself.
Other parts of the movie are heavily-borrowed, and whilst this is perhaps intentional, it means we are simply revisiting earlier moments in the genre. The whole premise of the film is quite close to the original CHILD’S PLAY (1988) – possessed dolls , demonic rituals and the quest for obtaining a soul. There’s even the obligatory “put-the-doll-in-the-dustbin-and-it-comes-back” gag. However, unlike CHILD’S PLAY (1988) there is no element of mystery in ANNABELLE – we know from the start that the doll is possessed. The real strength of Don Mancini’s writing in CHILD’S PLAY (1988) was that for the first 60 minutes or so, we sincerely believe little Andy Barclay could possibly be the killer. (As a further nod to the 1988 classic, the hotel in this movie is called the BARCLAY).
At key moments, the scriptwriting lets ANNABELLE down in a way which is just frustrating. But the big issue here is that there are categorically too few characters to engage with – and oddly not as much development of those characters as you’d expect given their screen time. It means we don’t really care if the demon takes a soul or not and this is a real cardinal sin when making a horror movie, you absolutely need empathy from the audience.
Much of the movie is content to show Mia home alone amongst strange occurrences, but we know nothing of her as a character or her past. To make matters worse, John – played straight by Ward Horton – is a cardboard protagonist who adds almost nothing to the picture at all. A welcome addition in the form of friendly bookstore owner Evelyn (a superb Alfre Woodard) is not enough to raise a significant degree of interest in the plight of our family-in-peril.
All in all, ANNABELLE is a functional horror movie. Unfortunately, for every flash of class there are a dozen formulaic – if old-faithful – moments.
Hotdog rating: 5.5/10