Before The Conjuring there was Annabelle
Working as both a prequel and spin-off to the hugely successful The Conjuring (2013), directed by renowned horror veteran James Wan — which followed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they worked to assist a family who were being terrorized by an evil force at their farmhouse — Annabelle explores the story behind the spooky large porcelain doll which appeared in Wan’s film, chiefly responsible for some of the more terrifying and memorable moments in The Conjuring. With James Wan out of the directing seat, though still serving as a producer, Annabelle, similar to its ancestor, is also rumored to be based around a true account, another investigation by Ed and Lorraine Warren, which is covered in chapter three of the paperback, written by Gerard Brittle, The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Working as director of photography on Wan’s earlier feats, such as Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), and the cinematographer on Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), Annabelle is John R. Leonetti’s first attempt at dabbling into the supernatural/ horror genera as director.
Set during the 1970s, Annabelle tells the story of newlyweds John Gordon (Ward Horton) and his gorgeous, expectant, wife, Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis), both thrilled about their soon-to-be first child. After a minor disagreement, John surprises his beloved with the perfect gift; a rare — though hideous looking — vintage doll which Mia had long been searching for, Annabelle, a picturesque porcelain collectable, dressed in a pure white wedding gown. Sadly though, Mia’s delight with Annabelle is short-lived, as late one night, a horrifying incident takes place. When members of a satanic cult, who violently assault John and the pregnant Mia, invade the Gordon home, spilled blood and fear are not all they leave behind, as the cultists seemingly conjure up a malevolent entity, using the doll as a conduit. With an unspeakable agenda, this damned presence will stop at nothing to fulfill its wicked desire, haunting the couple as it yearns for an innocent soul.
Borrowing creative elements from Wan’s earlier work, such as Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle largely stands out due to its distinctive Wan-inspired visuals. Basically recounting a generic haunting tale we’ve all no doubt seen countless times before — spirits, cults, skeptical husbands and hysterical mothers — the picture’s most attractive aspect lies within its striking aesthetic, with Hitchcockian fashioned set design and an eerie wrought doll, static and motionless for the most part — though the intimidating expression on her face, and her looming eyes, stir up sensations of fear — art director Douglas Cumming, The Maze Runner (2014), should be praised for his work, somewhat hauling the film out of mediocre terrain. Stationary shots, long-winded pans and slow zooms, makeup the majority of this origin tale — throw in a low-angle for good measure — building uneasiness and tension, in anticipation for the few grand-scale scares on offer.
While seasoned horror patrons might find this feature partially predictable and not nearly as frightening as some of the more recent genre entries — it falls more within the Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) territory — there are several prominent moments that will surely resonate with viewers, standing to be the highlights of the film — in particular, a scene, bound to remain etched on audiences minds, as we see, for the first and possibly final time, the Annabelle doll physically, in a harsh and rigid manner, move, whilst getting a glimpse of her heinous puppet master. The summoned fiend — which has latched itself onto the doll, and is seen only in short shadowy bursts and sudden glimpses — sticks to mind as another design triumph, sharing uncanny parallels to that of the Fire-Face Demon from Wan’s Insidious, being somewhat cut from the same cloth.
With relatively unknown actors headlining the feature, the pretty and graceful Annabelle Wallis, The Lost Future (2010) — coincidentally sharing the same name as the ill-fated doll and resembling a 1950s Grace Kelly — plays Mia, a distressed mother who would stop at nothing to ensure her child’s safety, alongside Ward Horton, Christmas Wish List (2005), as Mia’s loving husband, John, who works as a medical practitioner, the entire cast provides fairly passable performances all-round. Supporting the leads are Tony Amendola, The Mask of Zorro (1998), who is no stranger to playing Priests or religious figures, adding a worldly flavor as Father Perez, whereas Alfre Woodard, Primal Fear (1996), as bookstore owner and Mia’s friend, Evelyn, brings a voodoo-like Oklahoma vibe to the unnatural proceedings. Although the human players on show are comparatively decent, the true star of the film is Annabelle, the chilling china doll, as her simple, yet expressive, soul-piercing eyes expose and emphasize an ominous disposition. Photographed with dramatic lighting and in creative ways, a simple shot of Annabelle can evoke feelings of uneasiness and discomfort, with her filthy surface and obnoxious smile, glaring menacingly at the screen. While the Annabelle doll is no doubt rather alarming, her disturbing presence alone can’t carry an entire 98-minute feature, as the doll remains stagnant and still throughout.
Evidently a fan of Wan’s subtlety and style — and having worked together extensively in the past — filmmaker John R. Leonetti attempts to give us a James Wan film, which isn’t necessarily shot by Wan himself, and partly succeeds, as there’s enough ingenuity and inventiveness in the flick’s standout sequences, reminding us of Wan’s horror glory days — oddly, the hanging musical mobile in the nursery shares the same unsettling tune as that of the creepy music box seen in The Conjuring.
It’s suggested that the real life Warrens have a special case built to conceal the doll, which is in fact a Raggedy Ann, inside their Connecticut Occult Museum, where she apparently still resides today — visited only by a priest who blesses her twice a month — making this new film about as close as one would want to get to the foredoomed doll, and partly enjoy themselves in the process. Nowhere near as scary as it could have been — due to a humdrum script by C-grade horror maestro Gary Dauberman, Swamp Devil (2008) — Annabelle, will, by no means, be remembered as a horror masterpiece but, as a partly hurried follow-up feature, it’s a decent enough entry into the intriguing Ed and Lorraine Warren chronicles, originally shaped with brilliance by Wan’s The Conjuring.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner
Annabelle is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia