James Wan is one of the best modern directors in the horror genre. From his early days with Saw and defining the wave of gore centric cinema, to more simple ghost stories such as Insidious and The Conjuring he’s proved not only an effective filmmaker but a financially successful one as well. The Conjuring was not only hugely popular with audiences, but one of the greatest horror movies ever made - so Annabelle had big boots to fill. With Gary Dauberman’s script, Wan and Peter Safran approached John R. Leonetti to direct the flick. Leonetti had been the principal cinematographer on The Conjuring, so not only was it a natural progression but with Wan taking a step away from directing horror movies (much to fans dismay), Leonetti was the next best thing. The film tells the story of how the notorious Annabelle doll (first introduced in the amazing opening scene of The Conjuring) got to be in the Warren family museum of the weird and wacky. As a fan favourite and one of the most memorable and creepy of the Warren family artifacts, it’s easy to see why New Line, Wan and Safran saw the potential in an Annabelle spin off. Annabelle takes place in the late Sixties - a few years before The Conjuring – and is centered on the Gordon family. Set not long after Charles Manson’s horrific murders of Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate, it’s during the height of cult hysteria. As a gift to his pregnant wife Mia, trainee doctor John Gordon decides that it would be a good idea to buy her an unnerving NOPE doll to join her already heaving and exceptionally creepy collection (which includes a doll that has such a disturbing laugh it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end). Shortly after, the Gordon family become victims of a horrific house invasion and after an ill-fated sequence of events the NOPE doll becomes a conduit of demonic malevolence.
What made The Conjuring so good was Wan’s ability to build tension and suspense by using classic horror tropes and combining them with deep characterisation, fantastic sound design and nail-biting suspense. Although Leonetti does a great job of portraying how relaxed security was in the Sixties - which adds to the fear factor of the house invasion – the rest of the movie fails to recreate the excellence and genuine terror of the invasion sequence. The classic tropes are present such as; the rocking chair moving on its own, creaking floorboards, children laughing, doors slamming and self-rolling crayons. Yet most of the time instead of building suspense they became an annoyance as Leonetti largely refuses to follow through with the frights. Where Wan perfected that balance of mounting dread and jump moments, Leonetti seems to lean too heavily on the tension building and as a result it feels like there’s a distinct lack of scares.
A large portion of Annabelle is spent focusing on Mia and her experiences with the supernatural phenomenon plaguing her, but unlike the Warren and Perron families from The Conjuring, the Gordon’s are just not compelling characters. Trying to evoke any feelings of empathy or compassion from the audience for the Gordon’s is like trying to paint a Michelangelo masterpiece using a beige palette. The aptly named lead actress Annabelle Wallis does a good job of depicting Mia’s descent into madness and her performance is the best by a large margin. To contrast this, the character of John Gordon (played weakly by Ward Horton) toes the line between caring and contemptible, with some scenes portraying him as a loving and compassionate husband and others as a complete arse and someone who’s willing to leave the state to attend a business meeting while his heavily pregnant and traumatised wife is recovering from a horrendous attack and confined to bed rest.
The supporting cast does little to assuage the bitter taste that Annabelle leaves in the mouth – not to mention the fact that the film is about as racially diverse as the Olsen Twins. Despite being treated with the wonderful Alfre Woodard and her portrayal of the penitent librarian Evelyn (aka the ‘mystical negro’ trope and easily discernible plot device) she adds little to the mix. Dauberman substitutes the potentially interesting characterisation of Evelyn for a yawn-worthy attempt at a compassion-invoking backstory that has the sole purpose of setting up the agonising final scene of the movie.
If Annabelle were a stand-alone flick it would be satisfactory. It has all the classic NOPE doll ghost story moments, includes many enjoyable winks to its predecessor and builds suspense with undeniably great camera movement and decent sound design. But when standing side-by-side with The Conjuring, in nearly every way it’s veiled in its shadow. Shoddy characterisation, poor acting and a general lack of James Wan drown out the few moments of greatness on display.
Annabelle is like cold and dry leftovers from a roast dinner; it’s adequate as long as you don’t expect too much.
[rating=2] and a half Samuel Spettigue - follow Samuel on Twitter at @ninjaspag.