Last summer, audiences were captivated by the first ten minutes of James Wan’s The Conjuring and its centerpiece, a creepy doll named Annabelle. Now, the doll has her own movie, the appropriately titled Annabelle.
Set one year before the events of The Conjuring, Annabelle is the story of a young married couple named John and Mia Form (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) who are expecting their first child. Late one night, their home is invaded by two members of a religious cult who viciously attack Mia. Mia and her baby survive, but one of the cult members commits suicide while holding one of Mia’s vintage dolls. Soon after, Mia starts to notice weird things happening around the house, with everything seeming to point back to the doll. When the baby is born, the activity surrounding the doll intensifies. John and Mia enlist the help of their priest (Tony Amendola) and the owner of an occult bookstore (Alfre Woodard) to figure out what is going on, and they learn that the cult raised a demonic force that is now using the doll as a conduit in an attempt to steal the soul of their infant daughter.
Because Annabelle is essentially a spinoff of The Conjuring, comparisons between the two movies are inevitable. They are similar in tone, but different in context; while The Conjuring was a The Amityville Horror type of a movie, Annabelle owes more to Rosemary’s Baby. James Wan takes on the producer role on Annabelle and passes the directorial duties over to his longtime cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Because Wan and Leonetti have so much history working together, Annabelle looks and feels like a James Wan film. It’s got the same darkness and dread of The Conjuring and the Insidious movies, and even uses many of the same devices; there are plenty of long, drawn out takes with lots of camera motion, as well as wide shots that always seem to be hiding something in the corner shadows. It exists within the same universe as The Conjuring, so it adheres to a consistent mythology. Toss in a creepy KNB EFX demon design and a suitably atonal Joseph Bishara musical score, and Annabelle accomplishes its objective; it becomes part of the James Wan canon without feeling like a direct rip-off of an earlier film.
The focal point of Annabelle is, obviously, the doll. What’s interesting about that fact is that the doll is a secondary character; it’s a necessary plot device, but the real story is about the family and the demon who wishes to destroy it. The Annabelle doll is basically a prop, although it is one with its own definite arc; she starts out new and innocent looking, but gets more and more worn down and ugly as the film progresses and the demon gains more of a foothold within her. The doll is a symbol of a greater evil rather than being the central antagonist, which is great; Chucky from Child’s Play is fun, but no one needs another one. There are more sinister forces at work in Annabelle.
Like The Conjuring, Annabelle has several scenes of maddening suspense, where the audience knows exactly what is going to happen, just not when. For example, in one segment, Mia is using her sewing machine while watching television. The camera cuts between shots of her fingers, the machine’s needle, and her distracted face, creating a sense of tension within the viewer that is nothing short of cringe-worthy. In another scene, Mia is attacked by the demon while in the basement of the building, and the resulting cat-and-mouse chase becomes one of the scariest elevator scenes ever committed to celluloid. One thing that Annabelle does better than The Conjuring or Insidious is deal with the demon. Basically, Leonetti barely shows the demon at all, so when the audience does get a quick glimpse, it’s absolutely terrifying. What the audience imagines is always scarier than what a filmmaker can show, and Annabelle understands this. When it comes to showing demons, less is more.
There are points in Annabelle where the film falls back onto stereotypes and tropes of the horror genre: an empty crib here, a spooky little girl ghost there. But, for the most part, Annabelle is a pretty original movie. And, unlike most of the movies about demonic possession that flood the theaters these days, Annabelle does not end with an exorcism. The bottom line is that Annabelle fits in perfectly with the rest of James Wan’s movies, and fans of his catalog will be fans of Annabelle.
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