Like the unstoppable killers of innumerable horror franchises, nothing shouts “do it again!” faster than a box office return which dwarfs the original studio outlay. With takings of approximately fifteen times its $20 million budget, the uncanny adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were never going to stay confined to The Conjuring, and now even as their own sequel is prepared the doll which bookended their first outing receives her solo spinoff.
Produced by James Wan, director of The Conjuring as well as Saw, Dead Silence and Insidious, it is cinematographer and frequent Wan collaborator James R Leonetti who directs Annabelle from a script by Gary Dauberman, and certainly with his vast experience behind the camera Leonetti has composed a beautifully designed and lit film, which unfortunately boasts not one original idea in its hundred minutes.
It is 1969, and Mia and John Form (The Tudors‘ Annabelle Wallis and The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Ward Horton) are expecting their first child, safe in the comfort of their suburban home with their friendly neighbours, the Higgins, and Mia’s doll collection to which John has just gifted his wife a new addition.
From the outset, Annabelle tries too hard; the classic horror films of this period which it hopes to emulate – Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Amityville Horror – knew that before their families could be put in distress, the audience had to come to know them for who they were in their daily lives, with even the soundtracks of those films gentle in their lullaby melodies before the mundane happenstance unravelled to reveal the horror beneath.
Instead, Joseph Bishara’s soundtrack here speaks of menace from the opening bars, and the doll gifted to Mia, rather than just being slightly off in its proportions or oddly creepy in how lifelike it is, is designed to be hideous, serving no other purpose than to disturb, making John’s decision to purchase it and Mia’s subsequent delight inexplicable.
The characters are unremarkable and the dialogue is pure exposition as slushy orchestrations try to convince of the powerful love between Mia and John and their perfect marriage – compare this with the more believable bickering of the Freelings in Poltergeist – before the neighbours are slaughtered by their absentee daughter.
Brainwashed by a Satanic cult, she next attacks the Forms, both husband and wife injured before the unstable woman is shot by the police, her blood splashing on the doll which will come to be known by her name, Annabelle.
Rushed to hospital, Mia is told that her unborn child is unharmed but is advised to rest for the rest of her pregnancy, but a series of events plague Mia, following her, John and their newborn daughter Leah to their new dwelling in the city.
The ageless Alfre Woodard (Star Trek First Contact) brings an authority to the film in her role as the neighbourhood bookstore owner, and Tony Amendola (Stargate SG-1) is similarly welcome, doing his best in a by-the-numbers role as the well-meaning family priest Father Perez, but despite the exquisite and gloriously photographed sets the whole fails to convince, particularly in its supposed setting.
Despite taking place across one of the most visually distinct periods of modern history, remembered for music and fashion as well as cultural, social and political upheaval, with the costumes subdued and no contemporary soundtrack there is no feeling that Annabelle is tied to the end of the sixties and the first days of the seventies.
Lacking even a cheeky retro Warner Brothers logo to open the film, compare this with Richard Kelly’s The Box where the film was crafted to appear not only as though it was set in the seventies but had actually been filmed then.
With characters who seem to have no life beyond the screen, no conversations with anyone who does immediately serve a purpose to the minimal plot and every supposedly terrifying event telegraphed, Annabelle is as lifeless as the ugly doll itself, and nor are the regurgitated moments from earlier films even well orchestrated by Leonetti, the egregious liberations from Rosemary’s Baby made undeniable by Dauberman’s decision to name his leads after Polanski’s actors Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes.