Paint By Numbers Horror Light On Scares. Surprisingly, Annabelle Barely Features.
The horror genre has crashed and burned. Barring a few blips here and there, like Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 stunner Let The Right One In, it’s been a soggy, un-scary and derivative mess since the 90s, when Scream breathed a little originality into the game by very deliberately playing up the tired tropes.
The main trait these days is an ever-decreasing series of unnecessary sequels/prequels ad infinitum, plopping off the factory production line like so much landfill. While last year’s The Conjuring, from director James Wan, was light on both scares and originality, descending into a blatant rip off of The Exorcist in its finale, what it did offer was rich 70s detail and a charismatic duo in Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson’s paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren.
So obviously when following up on that film’s relatively decent $137 million + takings for the genre you’d zero in on them, right? Wrong. Inexplicably, Annabelle, a prequel of sorts, picks up on the hokey scary doll element only briefly touched on in The Conjuring, giving it an origin story all of its own, with that film’s cinematographer John R. Leonetti now at the helm. He’s best known for Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Say no more.
Bizarrely, as with the previous movie, the hideous wooden figure (just who on earth would buy this, let alone give it to a kid?) actually has very little to do here. There’s a far-fetched explanation for its possession, involving a couple of slashers from an apocalyptic cult, lifted straight from and directly referencing Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter, with a drop of one killer’s blood dripping into its eye.
Beyond that, don’t expect much Annabelle action. The real heavy lifting is given over to a dark and barely glimpsed devilish presence that delivers the film’s only genuine scare, a taut basement scene that goes for the bonus round with a bit of faulty lift action thrown in.
Not quite Farmiga and Wallace, Annabelle Wallis, presumably no relation to the doll, is sweet enough as young mum-to-be Mia, with Ward Horton also likeable as her doctor husband. They make the most of what very little they have to work with in Gary Dauberman’s dubiously light screenplay. True Blood’s Alfre Woodard is also on board as the kindly owner of a handy occult bookshop, while Once Upon a Time’s Tony Amendola pops up as the local priest.
Most of the so-called scares are just a predictable roll call of misbehaving electrical appliances, including a glitchy record player, crackly TV and overactive sewing machine. A creepy kids twinkly cot mobile is laboured for all it’s not worth. Instead of ramping up from The Conjuring, for the most part Annabelle plods along as perplexingly pedestrian family drama. Cliché upon cliché, there’s very little to keep you up at night with the lights on here.
Stephen A Russell
John R. Leonetti