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The month of October has rolled around once again, and Hollywood is fully ready to take advantage of audience’s Halloween-themed itching for movies that will potentially make them pee their pants in fright. Leading the pack out the gate this year is director John Leonetti’s Annabelle, and while the idea of a horror film that is a prequel to a subplot featured in a successful blockbuster from last year (The Conjuring) seems like a pretty terrible idea, what the film actually manages to pull off is ultimately kind of impressive.
A prequel/spinoff from James Wan’s The Conjuring, Annabelle tells an origin story for the titular doll – which is considered to be one of the most dangerous items in the collection of famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The plot centers on a young married couple named Mia and John (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton), who are expecting a child and preparing to live life together in 1970s Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this all gets derailed when a pair of murderous satanic cultists come knocking and attack them during the night. The couple manages to survive the attack, but what they don’t know is that a demonic mark has been left on the home, centrally focused around a porcelain doll in the soon-to-be-born baby’s nursery.
Akin to the central problem with the Paranormal Activity franchise, Annabelle’s greatest drawback is that the limitations of the narrative and production wind up forcing the story to fall into a repetitious pattern with its sequences of scenes. A large fraction of the film is dedicated to different interpretations of “John leaves Mia at home alone and something horrific and demonic happens.” Outside of making John look kind of like a dick for leaving his wife alone, this also has the negative effect of making the audience a little bit too comfortable.
Limited in scale and scope as it may be, however, the film earns a lot of points back by simply being seriously scary. Highlighting psychological fear over physical horror, the best moments come when your brain has to take a moment to register exactly what you’re seeing, and then alerts you that what’s in front of your eyes is utterly terrifying. Leonetti directs the film with panache similar to what was found in Wan’s precursor, making great use of long tracking shots and shadows, and Annabelle’s two best scares are guaranteed to stay with you for a couple of days. While I won’t spoil them here, let’s just say that you’re going to want to stay out of the basement for a while after, and you may be somewhat scarred by the thought of finding a strange child wandering around your home.
Annabelle can’t fully evade all subgenre clichés either, but audiences will actually wind up walking away from it appreciating the ones that that it does avoid. Yes, this is another movie featuring a wise black woman (played by Alfre Woodard) supporting the protagonists with spiritual guidance, but, believe it or not, this is actually a 21st century demonic possession horror movie that doesn’t feature an exorcism in its third act. Even the approach to the Annabelle doll is rather novel, as the film avoids the Chucky-esque springing to life and instead simply has her just radiate an intense, evil energy – which is actually rather effective.
Admittedly, the state of the horror genre in Hollywood today provided me with rather low expectations going into Annabelle, but that simply laid the groundwork for me being pleasantly surprised by the movie. It’s not quite on the same level as The Conjuring (one of the scariest films in recent memory), but it’s also far from the cash grab, low-rent spin-off that it could have been.