After the release of the 2013 modern-day horror classic THE CONJURING (you can read my 5 star review of it here) became a surprise critical and box-office smash hit, you knew that it wouldn’t be too long before a follow-up film was made. Well, sure enough 15 months later, that follow-up film is now upon us. But interestingly enough, this latest entry in THE CONJURING series doesn’t follow the further investigations of the characters of Ed & Lorraine Warren. Instead it’s a prequel/spin-off called ANNABELLE, which focuses on the creepy doll of the same name that played a small part in the previous film. So was it any good? Read on and find out!
Set a couple of years before the events of THE CONJURING, the film tells the story of Mia (Annabelle Wallis) & John (Ward Horton), a young married couple who expecting their first child. As special present for his pregnant wife, John buys Mia a vintage doll that she has been trying to find for a long time. One night, they hear screams coming from their neighbours’ next door and soon their home is invaded by members of a Satanic cult. However the police show up in time to stop them but one of them, a young woman named Annabelle, dies while holding Mia’s doll in her arms. After that terrifying event Mia & John try to move on with their lives, but strange and creepy things begin to happen to them. Mia starts to believe that they are happening because of her doll.
I must admit that while I was intrigued by the idea of a film centred around the “Annabelle” doll from THE CONJURING but at the same time, it did seem a quick cheap cash-grab by the studio to capitalise on the film’s success before the official sequel was made (ANNABELLE only started shooting in January this year). Even though a lot of the same people behind THE CONJURING came back to work on this one (although, director James Wan only served as a producer on this installment), it still didn’t quite get me excited for it. Especially when I heard that Wan’s frequent cinematographer John R. Leonetti signed on to the direct this one. Leonetti has only directed two other films before but unfortunately, they were both really bad (it doesn’t help that of them was MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION, which is probably the worst video game film ever made). Also the film was going to add elements and events that didn’t actually happen in the real life story (I suppose that since the film’s plot is set a few years before the real events of the “Annabelle” case, I guess it’s okay). So it definitely had a couple of things about it that would have worked against it. Now having seen the film and while it isn’t on the same level as THE CONJURING but for what it is I thought that ANNABELLE actually turned out to be surprisingly quite decent.
While Leonetti’s direction isn’t quite as brilliantly done as what James Wan did in THE CONJURING, but he still did quite a solid job nonetheless. Plus you can tell he definitely learned a thing or two from Wan on how to stage a good scare scene. There are some creepy moments in this film that were actually surprisingly well done and effective (there’s a scene involving “Mia” is in the locker area of her apartment building that I found to be quite intense). The cast all do a solid job well: Annabelle Wallis was definitely the stand-out in this film as “Mia”. I haven’t seen her previous film/TV work, but I was very impressed by her performance here. The film rests on her shoulders and she handled it like a pro. While he can be a bit wooden at times, I thought that Wars Horton was solid for most part as “John”. It actually was quite nice to see a husband character who is supportive and isn’t entirely dismissive of the creepy stuff that’s happening to his wife as they usually are in other horror films. Alfre Woodard is also quite good as the couple’s neighbour “Evelyn”. While her character isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but Woodard still beings a lot of class to it and she adds some touches that make her likeable. Plus the score by Joseph Bishara (who also did the scores for THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS 1 & 2) is chilling once again, the period production/costume design was strong, the sound design was very effective and, of course, the design of the “Annabelle” doll is still very creepy (although I just admit that I prefer the look of the real life doll, which I think was much scarier).
Now even though I did enjoy the film, there are some things about it that I thought were quite flawed. While the script by Gary Dauberman was okay for a film of this type, but it’s definitely not original at all and it does succumb to a lot of horror clichés. There’s nothing in this film that you haven’t already seen many times before in other horror films, and you can easily figure out exactly where the story is going to go. While the film does have some effectively creepy moments, but it’s not really as scary as it could have been and it does lack the atmosphere that James Wan brings to his horror films. Plus even though the film is nicely shot, but visually it does have the feel of a TV show/film at times. You can tell easily that this film was shot on digital ’cause at certain moments during it, you can notice the motion blur. I know it’s weird thing to be negative about but every time it shows up, it just takes me out of the film. In these moments it looks like it was shot on a home video camera (Michael Mann’s recent films have been suffering from this problems). Also there were scenes that I thought were a bit silly in how they were presented and executed (especially towards the end).
Overall while ANNABELLE isn’t a great nor truly original horror film by any means (plus it might be considered a little too ‘lightweight’ by hardcore fans of the genre) but I still quite enjoyed it and it was better than I thought it was going to be. If you enjoyed THE CONJURING, I’d say it is worth a watch. But like if don’t go into expecting it to be on the level of producer James Wan’s directed horror films, you might have some fun and some occasional chills with it as well.
– Bede Jermyn