After James Wan’s The Conjuring scared up a treat at the box office, it was a sure bet that it would get a follow up, but no one really could predict how quick this universe would spread through ingenious means that would give the horror genre it’s very own, timeline spanning, connected universe. As seen in the basement of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, there’s a veritable ghost-a-palooza of haunted and possesed artifacts all gathered in one place and any one of them has the potential to kick off their own movie with the clear front runner being the wide-eyed, death-stare flinging Annabelle doll.
A possessed artifact that actually exists (although in real life it’s actually cuter than one of the Muppets which is hardly what you’d call cinematic) and a clear frontrunner for prime spinoff potential, Annabelle made her solo debut barely a year after the Warren’s made their highly lucrative bow but unfortunately failed to recapture the classy jumps of the orginal movie and instead of giving us living doll, gave us a living dull…
It’s 1967, and sickeningly wholesome couple of John and Mia Form experience the worst type of night time caller when their neighbours and then themselves are brutally attacked by demon worshiping cult members who carve up the couple next door and seriously wound heavily pregnant Mia. While the male cult member is given an eternal time out by a police officer’s side arm, his female accomplice takes her own life and is found with her throat slashed and cradling the newest doll in Mia’s creepy collection.
So far, so harrowing; but as the couple struggle to get back to normal and deal with more mundane life upheavals (John confesses he’s unsure if he’s ready to be a father – cracking timing, mate), strange things start to occur. After throwing out the doll that was so inconciderately bled on by a raving lunatic, John is unnerved to find it back in the house and at one point a mysterious kitchen fire threatens to singe Mia and her baby into oblivion; but somehow, she actually manages to give birth and all seems well… right up to when it isn’t.
Whatever malevolent force resides inside the doll seems to really want to target the newborn and as the attacks grow more fierce the couple seeks help from their local priest and a kindly neighbour with a tragic past but can they possibly hope to stop this demonic dick-hole from claiming what it wants, when it wants?
Straight off the bat, it’s somewhat disappointing that such a memorable figure such as the jaundiced faced doll that made such a splash in The Conjuring has such a measly “origin” (she got a prequel to this prequel so there’s more history to come), with a strung out cult chick transferring her demonic essence into a blank-eyed plaything feeling way too close to Child’s Play’s Chucky for comfort. But saying that, at least that carrot topped little shit runs about the place and stabs people; Annabelle is actually only a conduit for demons to wreak havoc as seen in The Conjuring when that movie’s villain, Bathsheba, used it to fax herself over to the Warren’s house for some extra carnage points; she doesn’t actually do things herself. That’s left up to a shadowy, goat demon who, despite getting in a good jump scare or two, feels very much like a leftover idea from the earlier Insidious franchise and therefore doesn’t feel particularly original or threatening.
In fact, “not particularly original or threatening” is actually a perfect description for this rather basic boo-fest that feels horribly dated, especially as it appeared just as the genre of “thoughtful horror” was just getting started. Compared to the high concept spine chillers that actually had something to say about the human condition such as It Follows, The Witch and The Babadook, Annabelle ironically feels like simplistic kids stuff which only exists to draw out a new franchise.
Things wouldn’t be so bad if it’s scares were more finely tuned but it’s so flatly directed by John R. Leonetti – best known for the Netflix killer bat movie The Silence and, um… Mortal Kombat: Annihilation – you’d have trouble believing that he used to be a cinematographer let alone the first guy chosen to eek out The Conjuring’s rich universe into something that has to make money. As a result the movie trots out virtually every possession and haunting trope in the book (something James Wan already did with much better results with the first film and Insidious) without ever clinging onto a single idea of it’s own. Even it’s arguably most effective scare – a ghostly little girl runs at a closing door only to burst through it as a full grown screaming woman – has been identically harvested from Mario Bava’s Beyond The Door 2 (a.k.a. Shock) from 1977 which feels less of a clever homage and more of a drunken ram raid on a Saturday night.
The cast are fine with Annabelle Wallis curiously coming off better in Tom Cruise’s maligned 2017 Mummy remake that she does in this and Ward Holton is such a wholesome, straight arrow you’d swear he was an infant clone of James Marsden who had narrowly escaped culling and formed a Hollywood career of it’s own; but thankfully the ever-dependable Alfre Woodard brings much needed gravitas to proceedings as does Tony Amendola as the put upon Father Perez who pops up once again further along the Conjuring timeline…
A film that only truly exists simply to make you jump and make money (1 out of 2 ain’t bad – especially when it’s the making money part), Annabelle had the rather strange effect of guaranteeing that a Conjuring connected universe is commercially viable while simultaneously indicating that the rot was already setting in only two films in, either way, the possessed plaything managed to nab herself an entire trilogy before it’s parent franchise which I suppose isn’t something to be sniffed at.
But other than that, it’s a case of hell-no, dolly…