By Jessica Delfanti | October 3, 2014
Director: John R. Leonetti
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola
If the horror films of the 70’s revolved around teenage girls and knife wielding maniacs, then our newest wave has found its own set of trimmings: the young, isolated mother, the supernatural but brutal threat, and, thanks to James Wan and what I like to call “That dancing devil” from Insidious, the visualization of the threat, be it demon, ghost, or even doll. With films like Insidious, Sinister, and The Conjuring bringing a tasteful style married to tacky flare–like an old Victorian with a leopard print trim–the horror genre has just gotten a breath of new life. So it is that when a film is marketed as a Conjuring spinoff about, of all things, that terrifying doll…well sure, I’ll sign up for that. Such is the story of how many will end up watching John R. Leonetti’s surprising enjoyable Annabelle.
Annabelle takes place before The Conjuring, focusing on Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), a young couple expecting their first baby in Los Angeles. John gives Mia a freaky doll–the freaky doll–because apparently Mia is the kind of psychopath that actually collects these things. She places it in her nursery because, sure, that’s what you want hanging over your newborn baby at night.
When a violent attack occurs in their home, the doll becomes…infected? Possessed? It’s unclear, but it’s actually well done–with some tasteful tricks, you never actually see the doll move. There is no garish crackling smile or unnerving wink, and the effort it must have taken to resist those cheap tricks deserves real applause. Granted, Leonetti gets around it by showing a charcoal-crusted demon bad-guy that is occasionally scary but more frequently goofy–appearing to be a specific homage to James Wan’s “dancing devil”!
This devil/demon/doll end up terrorizing Mia for the rest of the movie, hypothetically trying to get their hands on someone’s soul. The scares here are fairly standard–they’ll make you grab someone’s hand really hard but won’t make you scream. There is a single moment in the film with a unique scare trick so well done it’s almost worth watching the movie just to see it, but unfortunately this originality doesn’t extend throughout the whole experience.
Leonetti makes a wise choice in pulling style choices from The Conjuring while also injecting a collection of vintage tropes, channeling Rosemary’s Baby straight through to the climax. For her part, Wallis pulls out all the stops, clawing at her face in an oh-so-lovely way that feels directly ported out of the 70s. The wardrobe and trimmings are well chosen and enjoyable to observe–and best of all, the time period gives a little credence to the concept that anyone would ever willingly put that horrible doll in their house.
Even with that credence, though, I found myself almost saying aloud every time the doll appeared: “I mean, really? Come on!” As the film progresses, the doll becomes more and more demonic in appearance, and yet no one ever asks the question: why? What’s up with the weird doll collection? The film is packed with scenes that beg for suspension of disbelief, like a part where Mia meets with a detective, then takes a photo from an evidence file–a photo of a murder scene–and basically just says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep this…” Right, okay, sure.
Still, despite its problems, Annabelle is surprising. It has fun scares, Wallis is a joy to watch, and it’s about a haunted doll. Who doesn’t want to see that? I mean, really? Come on!