I quite enjoyed last year’s The Conjuring by horror maestro James Wan. It was an atmospheric little haunted house movie in the style of 70s chillers with some nice scares and a likeable cast, but the breakout star of the film was a horrifically creepy doll by the name of Annabelle. While not really part of the main story except for two very scary sequences, that creepy little hunk of porcelain made enough of an impression to end up on the poster, and now she has a spin-off to wreak havoc of her own.
Happy couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first baby, and to celebrate John has gotten Mia a new doll for her collection (guess who). When their neighbours are brutally murdered by cultists and Mia is attacked, some blood gets on the doll and things, as you can imagine, start to get a little odd. With a newborn daughter to protect, Mia must find out what’s happening and how to stop it before her family’s souls pay the price.
The pitfall of all horror fans is that you inevitably become very well-acquainted with the various clichés and devices which crop up again and again in films. The trick is in playing those clichés in a way that doesn’t make the film boring, or even turning them on their head. Although Annabelle isn’t necessarily dull, it plays like a Greatest Hits of things we’ve seen before. The helpful priest, the knowledgeable stranger, slamming doors, creepy child’s drawings–it’s all very recognisable and predictable. Annabelle herself is also so textbook “creepy doll” even before things go bad that it’s almost funny, and you can’t help but wonder why the heck somebody would buy that thing (answer: she’s a limited edition) or put it in their child’s room. However, the way that the doll is shot is very unnerving, using a lot of long takes where you’re waiting for and dreading the possibility of her moving by herself. Less well done are the other scares, all of that delightful long silence then SUDDEN LOUD NOISE style that–apart from two good ones, both involving doors–just serve to startle. They also apparently couldn’t just let the doll herself be the sole threat, and we get a glimpse of a demon that, much like a lot of the film, looks very familiar but with a colour swap. The couple being menaced are nice; Actress Annabelle Wallis is convincing when she’s scared, particularly in one basement/elevator scene and later when she’s alone and being tormented, but the best performance in the film is Alfre Woodward as the kindly neighbour who helps Mia uncover information about what’s haunting her.
By the start of the third act, the film’s only crime is its harmless predictability, but then the ultimate finale kicks in and this is where it all falls really flat. It’s anti-climactic with a side helping of unfortunate implications. It’s all a shame because there are some decent talent and ideas here, and when it gets the mood right, it gets it really right.
There are better offerings for creepy entertainment this Halloween season, but come Annabelle’s DVD release maybe grab some friends, grab some booze, and play a round of the cliché bingo drinking game. There won’t be any surprises, but you might have some fun.