Annabelle is less a prequel, and more a companion piece to James Wan’s wildly successful 2013 horror, The Conjuring. While Wan has stayed on as executive producer, this outing has instead been directed by Wan’s long time DOP, John R. Leonetti. Simply having James Wan’s name attached to a horror project, however, immediately places extremely high expectations on a piece. Annabelle had a lot to live up to.
If you haven’t seen The Conjuring, there’s not a lot to catch up on. Annabelle is an extremely creepy porcelain doll. Young married couple John (Ward Horton) and Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis) are expecting their first child, and are excitedly preparing for the arrival by decorating the baby’s room. Mia collects dolls, and Annabelle (not the doll’s original name, as we discover) is a very rare doll that Mia has been searching for for a long time. One violent, terrifying incident later, and strange things start happening….
Mannequins, automatons, dolls — there’s something inherently creepy, even uncanny, about all of them. Annabelle understands this, takes the idea, and runs with it. Even if you haven’t seen The Conjuring, there is something disturbing about Annabelle and all the other dolls Mia collects that strikes you before anything actually scary happens.
Sadly, it takes a while before anything scary happens, and when it does happen, it is few and far between. There’s nothing particularly unique about the story either, and Mia’s husband John is reasonably annoying, being little more than a cardboard cutout of a character. There’s little real personality to him, but this is less a reflection of Ward Horton’s ability, and more a reflection of shallow character development. Annabelle Wallis as Mia is solid, and easier to empathise in comparison to her dull husband. Alfre Woodard as a sort of ‘wise woman’ and friend to Mia, Evelyn, was incredibly warm and likeable.
Of course, story and character development often takes a backseat in horror films to make way for atmosphere and scares (although the best horror films make good use of all aspects). Annabelle has atmosphere, but it doesn’t capitalise on it often enough. However, the scares that are there are quite effective. Things happen and pass by out of the corner of your eye; shots are held just long enough to make you paranoid (“What’s happening? Is something going to happen?!!”); the good old-fashioned jump scare. Promising a scare and not delivering, however, are where the film gets let down. Annabelle is still a frightening, fun outing – just don’t expect too much.