First things first, I gotta come clean and tell you that I have an ongoing fear of dolls and puppets. I don’t really have a specific memory of where this started, but it has stuck with me for some time. Yet strangely, I have a special place in my heart for movies that are truly scary and involve dolls or puppets. I love a truly scary horror flick, and ones involving tiny inanimate human facsimiles give me that extra scare factor. For this reason, I elevate movies like Dead Silence a little bit more than it deserves, and Poltergeist still scares the crap out of me (I know it’s coming, but that creepy clown doll on the bed gets me every time).
So, when it was announced that the creepy doll from The Conjuring was getting a feature length prequel, Annabelle immediately made my Halloween must-watch list. My hopes were that it would take a lot of inspiration from its predecessor; The Conjuring was an old school-style horror flick that ventured away from jump scares and managed to be one of the best modern horror films in the last few years. While Annabelle does manage to really create some effectively scary scenes, it doesn’t come close to doing its predecessor justice.
John and Mia Gordon (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) appear to have the perfect marriage (don’t they always?), until the night their neighbours are murdered by their crazy cultist daughter. Following this, the Gordons become targets of the attack and become involved in what seems to be a strange cult ritual. Strange occurrences start happening around the house that all seem to center around the doll that one of the murderers died holding. The situation becomes more frightening and dangerous once Mia concurrently becomes semi bed-ridden and gives birth to their first child.
Annabelle breaks from the style that James Wan’s The Conjuring established, since it relies a lot more on sudden scares instead of pure atmosphere. In fact, this movie shares a lot more in common with a different Wan film, Insidious. Some of the creature effects and even a few shots almost seem copied directly from that film. Even a good portion of the plot, where a stay at home wife experiences paranormal activity and must cope with it mostly on her own until she can convince her husband, is very similar to the way Insidious plays out (and yes, it is also similar to a billion other horror movies, too). While Insidious pulled off most of what it tried to do, Annabelle, for the most part, feels lazy and overly familiar.
Annabelle does manage to create some good atmosphere on a few occasions. For one, it smartly takes the same rule that The Conjuring employed and never (well, pretty much never) shows the doll moving on its own. This is important, because, speaking as a person who is freaked out by creepy dolls, my innate fear of dolls rests on the fear that it might move on its own. Once the thing actually starts to move, especially if it moves too much, the viewer can realize the ridiculousness of a moving doll and can begin to cope with it (this is why the Chucky movies aren’t actually scary).
Another nice touch is that Annabelle slowly and subtly gets creepier and creepier looking. The movie never mentions it but the unscathed doll from the start slowly gains more and more cracks, bloodshot eyes and an almost greenish tint.
I must mention that the basement scene in this film is structured almost perfectly and is the scariest part of the whole movie. It’s one of the few scares in the film that doesn’t involve the doll at all (which leaves me to wonder if the filmmakers actually wanted to make a creepy doll movie in the first place). It builds slowly from the appearance of carriage and the increasing volume of a non-existent baby’s cry. Then, as the victim clues into the horror transpiring, the audience can glimpse a peek of a monster in the background (but only if they’re really paying attention). Everything comes together just right: the slowly accelerating transition from calm to helplessness, the mixture of subtle and blatant scares, and, finally, Mia’s most helpless moments in an elevator that will not take her away from danger. It’s the only part I will probably remember about this movie, years from now.
Compared to that scene, the rest of the film often seems lazy, cheap and even nonsensical. In The Conjuring, the victims never destroy any totems of demonic power because professionals tell them that they can become even more dangerous. Without this piece of information in the prequel, the audience wonders why the main characters never even try to just break or burn the fucking doll.
The biggest let down of Annabelle is its ending. It’s mainly disappointing because, moments before, something really disturbing happens (I won’t spoil it here, even though the movie isn’t really worth watching) that would have been a perfect ending to the movie. Instead, the movie almost immediately plays takesie-backsies and then gives us the real ending, which is incredibly stupid, cheaply written and a little offensive. The funny thing is that if the movie had ended the disturbing way, I would have probably given it a halfway decent recommendation. Instead, the movie cops out and wastes whatever little promise it had.
Aside from a few rare moments, Annabelle recycles overused scare tactics and atmosphere, but often falls flat. It would have probably just felt like another middling horror flick pumped out by Hollywood, but its ties to the far superior The Conjuring and awful ending put the movie in really bad territory. Seeing that the horror releases are lacking this October, you might not really have another option for a scary theatre feature. If you’re like me and really like to see all available horror on the big screen (especially when Halloween comes close), Annabelle might give you the few kicks you’re looking for, but I’d advise you to not waste your time and money. Trust me on this one, if I was completely unfazed by a horror that centers around a doll, then it definitely won’t cut the mustard for the average horror fan.