Haunted dolls or puppets are usually a pretty easy sell for horror, despite the fact they are plainly not scary. Taking perhaps the genre’s most obvious example, Chucky, the Child’s Play series of films have always worked best as self-reflexive dark comedies, rather than straight-shooting horror. While Dead of Night’s ventriloquist’s dummy sequence may be that film’s most iconic, it’s also (golfing ghosts aside) its least scary. Stephen King co-wrote an episode of The X-Files which featured a malevolent doll, but that too failed to raise much of a scare, while Jigsaw communicated with his victims via an even more dubious example of the scary puppet.
John R Leonetti has his work cut out from himself then if he is to capitalise on enormous success of The Conjuring with this spin-off-cum-prequel. He’s previously worked on Child’s Play 3 and has a longstanding professional relationship with James Wan, but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a great start.
Annabelle’s first few seconds do more than simply call to mind The Conjuring’s opening scenes; they replay them with a heavy-handedness which is only slightly more subtle than this film’s promotional campaign reminding us that the two film’s are linked. “Remember that film you liked last year kids? Well this one’s made by the same guys and we’ve brought that ugly looking doll back for you to scream at”.
We flashback a year to the late sixties and the marital home of newlyweds Miya (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), whose slice of suburban utopia is despoiled by the invasion of a Manson Family-esque satanic cult only moments after John has gifted his wife the four foot tall, monstrous looking doll she needs to complete her bizarre collection.
There are some pleasing red herrings thrown in as the fallout from the cult’s actions becomes more obvious and dangerous, and the throwbacks to a raft of horror films: Rosemary’s Baby, Scream, The Entity, The Omen plus more are satisfying enough. What’s less pleasing is Leonetti’s decision to overload the film with a kitsch, almost camp, sensibility. Annabelle is at times so hysterical one almost expects Graham Chapman’s Colonel will appear at any moment to plead with the characters to stop being so silly. There really is no better adjective; Annabelle is enormously, thunderously silly.
Leonetti deserves some credit for avoiding the usual pitfalls of bringing a possessed doll to life on-screen. I don’t want to give the game away, but mercifully we are not forced to watch eight year-old in a frock hot-footing it around with a knife. His problem is his penchant for undermining some of his more powerful scenes, such as a great, nightmarish moment in a broken lift, with an unnecessary “final” scare.
It’s a touch unwarranted to call-out Leonetti on the more asinine aspects of Annabelle as he’s clearly going for a party-piece horror movie; a fun slice of terror rather than a grinding, downbeat slog – it’s much more Fright Night, much less Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Annabelle is big-ish budget horror for the masses. For the scream queens and their pals who tread the waters of fear once, maybe twice a year. Often daft with a hint of the macabre, this should raise just enough hair without living long in the memory.
Genre: Horror Distributor: Warner Bros Rating: 15 Release Date: 10th October 2014 Director:John R. Leonetti Cast:Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Eric Ladin, Brian Howe