Certain images come pre-loaded with an inherent creepiness ‐ identical twins, clowns, dolls, identical ginger clown dolls ‐ but while their presence guarantees some degree of an unsettling atmosphere they’re not actually all that scary. It’s a fine distinction perhaps, but it’s enough to make one leery at the idea of a horror film built around a doll. Yes I’ve seen and enjoyed Child’s Play, but no, it’s not scary. Annabelle is a spin-off from last year’s The Conjuring that’s focused on the doll from that film’s bookend sections, but it wisely attempts and succeeds at finding some fantastic scares from a variety of other sources.
Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are a young couple expecting a first child into their blissful early ’70s suburban life, but a pair of violent home intruders shatter their illusory bubble and paint the nursery walls red. The attack stirs something in one of Mia’s dolls, opening a gateways of sorts to a dark and destructive visitor, and soon the new family is being terrorized by an unknown force hungry for human souls.
There are some meandering script issues at play here alongside a fairly straightforward story, but Annabelle succeeds as an entertaining and fun horror movie thanks to its attractive visual style, strong performances and a handful of fantastically executed moments of terror.
The film opens with onscreen text informing viewers about the long history of dolls being seen as portals for evil immediately followed by a brief return to the opening scene of The Conjuring where the pair of nurses share their troubles regarding the Annabelle doll. We jump back a year prior and meet Mia and John, and the film wisely allows time to get to know the couple before the doll even enters their lives. When he does finally give her the doll as a gift ‐ seriously John, paper is the one year anniversary gift, not nightmarish porcelain ‐ it’s a harmless and empty figurine until human madness enters their home.
Annabelle gets its (her?) fair share of creepy scenes throughout, but the cultish home invaders offer the film’s earliest scares. They’re a tangible threat and director John R. Leonetti along with cinematographer James Kniest capture and present them with their maniacal, Manson-infused glory intact. Sure they’re heightened, but their bloodletting is a real terror that could be waiting for you at home after the movie. The majority of the remaining fear-inducing sequences focus on supernatural shenanigans, and Leonetti borrows a few tricks from James Wan’s Insidious where he served as director of photography and delivers genuinely hair-raising moments. One gag involving a little girl running towards us is executed masterfully and is guaranteed to earn screams and involuntary jumps from viewers.
Too many horror films are content looking cheap in the guise of claustrophobia or atmosphere, but like its spiritual predecessor The Conjuring this one looks and feels authentic. Period details ring true, the scary elements have weight and texture the likes of which CGI can’t touch and the performances are strong throughout. Wallis and Horton in particular are convincing as young lovers both before and after the nightmare begins. She bears the brunt of the screen time and the trauma, and she makes for an affecting surrogate for the rest of us.
Gary Dauberman’s script creates a solid foundation and sets up several fantastic sequences, but there’s some sagging as events grow repetitive at times. There’s also the matter of the Magical Negro [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro]. To be fair, it may have come down to a casting decision as opposed to something deliberately spelled out in the script, but the character of Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) swoops in and checks many of the boxes associated with the character device ‐ wiser, older, blacker, selfless and full of knowledge on the mystical matter at hand ‐ and while it doesn’t stop the film in its tracks it still feels like an unnecessarily lazy decision. Woodard does great work with the role regardless.
Annabelle is a surprisingly well-crafted little horror film that succeeds more on the elements than the whole. Various scares and sequences will stick in your mind far longer than the characters or story details, but it achieves its intended goal of delivering an unnerving yet entertaining piece of genre pop.
The Upside: Several effective scares; well crafted production; Annabelle Wallis’ lead performance and the coincidence of her first name
The Downside: Some sections drag or are repetitive; core story isn’t great; who the hell would give someone that damn doll as a gift?
On the Side: The real Annabelle doll, the one owned by Ed and Lorraine Warren, is actually an over-sized Raggedy Ann doll.