There’s a line delivered in Annabelle that sort of says ‘the more we know about monsters, the less they can frighten us’. That’s a dangerous thing to say in the context of this prequel to The Conjuring. In the original, the demonic doll was effective simply because her existence was so strange and inexplicable; she simply turned up, with no suggestion of why the forces of darkness would use this particular doll as a familiar. She was scary in that sometimes there is no explanation as to why terrible things happen, they sometimes just do. Consequently, her getting a whole movie to explain in precise detail her origins and motives can only serve to weaken that sense of unease.
1970: Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Form (Ward Horton) are expecting their first baby, already having fitted out the nursery with a whole assortment of dolls and toys. But this is overshadowed by one horrific night. Their next-door neighbours are murdered by members of an insane cult, who then turn their attention towards Mia and John. Thankfully the police get there in the nick of time, but not before one of them gets into the nursery and does something to one of the dolls in her final moments. The Forms have no idea that the real nightmare is about to start…
The issue of trying to make Annabelle a star can be compared to those surrounding Vin Diesel’s character of Riddick in Pitch Black and it’s sequels. In the first film the character was effective precisely because he wasn’t the main character. He was a wild card, the one that you didn’t know where you stood around, and his character was built up precisely around that idea. So when they made sequels with him as the lead, they had to awkwardly rework him and the story to make him fit the role of protagonist, losing a lot of what initially made him interesting. Annabelle has the same issue; she wasn’t the main antagonist in The Conjuring, she was an extra twist to the tale, not the focus. As such, it’s hard to properly square the way she’s portrayed here with her other appearance, and the big shocking revelation about her origin is really not that interesting.
There’s also the other issue, which can be one more general to prequels. As with sequels, there’s the need to do more, to out-do the previous one. So as such, Annabelle does a lot more here and far more directly than in The Conjuring. This escalation leads to a few other problems, not least in terms of subtlety. The whole ‘creepy doll’ angle in films is one that often works best the less we see of the dolls on screen, something The Conjuring and James Wan‘s previous film, Dead Silence, did quite well. Here, not only is Annabelle almost pure nightmare fuel before she gets possessed (why would anyone put something that freaky looking in a kid’s bedroom?), but it goes overboard with how much she does. There’s one shot of her with bloodshot eyes, and another where she seems to levitate on screen, almost destroying her credibility, and just seeming silly. The real nail in the coffin though is that the film makes the choice of showing somewhat directly the force behind her. If the whole point is to sell Annabelle as a horror villain, that doesn’t work when you overtly show on screen that she’s a puppet of something else. At that point, she’s just a prop.
As for the rest of the film, John R. Leonetti, the new director, is not up to James Wan’s level, but he make a good stab at it. There are some quite well staged shots and scares, though nearly always of the loud noise jump-scare variety. In fact, this is done so much, there are scenes when it looks like characters are being attacked just by jump-scares. There are also quite a few odd little moments when the film looks and feels really cheap, like some shots that look like they were filmed on a Go-Pro camera.
The storyline isn’t anything that special, and borrows pretty liberally from quite a few other horrors, both recent films like Paranormal Activity and James Wan’s Insidious, and (a whole lot from) classics like Rosemary’s Baby. The acting is quite good overall, with Annabelle Wallis a likeable lead, Tony Amendola as a priest who’s a lot of help, and especially Alfre Woodard as the sort of neighbour you want on your side when stuff like this is happening.
Despite all its flaws, there’s still fun to be had with Annabelle. Don’t go in expecting anything as effective as The Conjuring and you’ll have a big silly time, just the sort of thing you want as a Halloween treat. If you have seen the trailers, you have already seen quite a few of the best scares, but not quite all of them, there is at least one major thing they haven’t given away yet. Lower your expectations, don’t go in expecting any sort of horror classic, and you’ll probably enjoy this offering. One health point though: there’s one major scene involving flashing lights, so anyone with epilepsy take note.