After the monstrous success of last year’s film, a hastily produced sequel was inevitable, but with Wan apparently content to abandon the horror genre to direct the next Fast and Furious instalment, the reigns were handed over to the DOP of The Conjuring, John Robert Leonetti, the man responsible for Mortal Kombat 2 and The Butterfly Effect 2. If you’re thinking that he was the wrong man to direct a low scale creepy horror film, then to some extent you’re right, although he does a more competent job that you might expect.
Remember the doll Annabelle from The Conjuring? How could you not? Although she only made a brief appearance, she was so downright creepy that she became one of the most memorable aspects of the film. So a prequel detailing her origins rather that the generic direct sequel route seemed like a smart move.
Unlike its predecessor which mostly unfolded through the eyes of two experienced ghost hunters who had to explain everything to the victims in order for the audience to understand, Annabelle takes a more fish out of water approach, with our hapless young couple Mia and John having no clue about the sinister entity possessing their antique doll after satanists break into their house.
This initially creates quite a strong setup, with pregnant Mia becoming more and more convinced that supernatural forces are at play while her husband serves as the voice of reason. Rather conveniently, however, they stumble across a priest and a benevolent shopowner whose main purposes seem to be to show up and explain everything whenever the plot needs them to. “I think I’m being haunted by a ghost” Mia tells the shop-owner, the be met with the remark “aisle 4, this way” in what was clearly meant to be a humorous attempt of showing that she knows exactly what’s going on, but instead disappoints the viewer by informing them that we’re now in ‘characters show up to explain everything’ territory. Funnily enough, John soon believes every word of what’s going on without witnessing any evidence, something the film itself even seems surprised by as expressed in Mia’s dialogue.
Subtlety is a key component if any film seriously plans on scaring its audience. Only hinting at the sinister and macabre to leave it to the viewer’s imagination instead of explicitly showing it has proven time and again to be the most effective approach. Leonetti comes from a cinematography background and seems to be more interested in how to showcase spectacles onscreen than how to genuinely frighten his audience. And at times he even veers dangerously close into the unintentionally funny category. An old man is knocked into the air at breakneck speed by an invisible force, and a packet of popcorn left on the stove for too long overheats and explodes, causing a fire, miraculously without alerting the woman in the next room. Yeah.
As the young couple, Annabelle Wallis (no relation) and Ward Horton, whilst not as well known as Patrick Wilson and Vera Farminga, still come across as being every bit as convincing as a couple terrorised by things beyond their comprehension. Perhaps Annabelle’s strongest element is that it ultimately ends up being a story about the importance of family, as they strive against all odds to prevail. The priest states that their hardships do not weaken them, but make them stronger by showing them how far they will go to protect each other, something the film gets across rather well.
But the biggest star of the film without a doubt has got to be Annabelle herself. The doll is so damn creepy that you wonder why anyone in their right minds would keep it in their house. And although we never clearly see the doll move or interact (not that we’d want to) we still get the impression that if we really do have the next big horror franchise on our hands, Annabelle will always be there to creep the hell out of us.