It is clear that all the best horror movies nowadays are being made by independents. The studios seem happy to churn out either overblown found footage films like The Pyramid and countless Paranormal Activities or haunted/possession numbers like Ouija or another Insidious. The independents meanwhile are knocking our socks with Starry Eyes, Honeymoon, Late Phases, It Follows etc. That’s not to say that the studios aren’t still capable of making great horror movies, its just that they seem to have fallen into the trap of playing it safe – giving us the same thing again and again. Keep them in low on budget and original ideas and market it well and a profit will surely ensue.
Annabelle is the perfect example of this trend. The haunting and possession thing has really reached a point where there seems very little left to say about it. The Conjuring was the best example of taking all the familiar ghost tropes and making something great out of them, but this spin-off about the creepy doll from the beginning of that film just rehashes those same old tropes without adding anything new. Annabelle suffers from a big lack of original ideas from its underdeveloped characters to its long black haired ghosts.
Saying all that I really liked it.
The Conjuring, I think we can all agree, is a modern classic, and the idea of having a spin off about the story from the opening few minutes is something I welcomed with open, rotting arms. However unlike The Conjuring which was kinda-sorta-probably-not based on a true story, here they’ve just made up some old guff. The opening set up is terrific though: a young married couple, Mia and John, are living next door to an older couple who’s daughter has “run away with some hippies”. As its the end of the sixties we see on the television news about the Manson family and the Tate killing. This sets up what happens next: in the middle of the night the next door neighbour’s daughter returns with some crazy cult friend and attack her parents. Mayhem ensues and Mia’s favourite new doll ends up with the blood of the daughter on it. Its a tight, violent and scary opening that wracks up the tension. Its just a shame that after that we go through the motions of things moving around and switching on and off for a while. Also there are some ghost children running through the house. Please can we have no more ghost children, they have been pretty boring and definitely not very scary for a long time. The last time I was scared by a ghost child was when I read Lost Hearts by M. R. James, when I was a child.
The unhappy couple, and now baby, get the hell out of their house, and not a moment too soon. The place look uncannily like the first house in Insidious for my liking, with the same layout and big, brown front door. Oh, that couple left their family home after the wife insisted in the face of scepticism from the husband too. Can you see how there are a lack of new ideas here? It follow the same story beats as all the other supernatural stories kicking around at the moment.
Things do pick up in the next location, a modern apartment block. Only slight trouble here is that now, with this waif, blonde wife being told she’s mad kicking around an empty apartment block rings of Rosemary’s Baby. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, and its definitely on purpose – Mia and John are named after Rosemary’s stars Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. It also learns from Polanski how to shoot an set for maximum effect.
What I like about Annabelle is that despite being incredibly derivative as far as the plot is concerned, it is really, really well directed, and looks fantastic. Director John R. Leonettti and his team take full advantage of the relatively small location with lots of long steady cam shots swinging around Mia as the mostly alone mother defending her baby against unseen forces. There is an absolutely beautiful and scary scene set in the basement when Mia is threatened by some demonic force, she make a dash for the lift, away from this hell, and instead of doing the old cliche of the thing grabbing the lift doors just as they close, the lift does close and move off, but then it opens and she’s still in the basement. This scene repeats itself several times but instead of getting repetitive, it gets more and more tense because of how they have set up the camera. We are viewing things from just behind Mia, so we can see into the basement but we are slightly off to the left so we can’t quite see ENOUGH. Admittedly this is an old Polanski trick again but it works really well.
The basement scene is not just a brilliant composition but is also really well lit, giving just enough of the horrors in the darkness without revealing too much. The other great moment involving shadows and light involves something with the Annabelle doll that I won’t spoil here but is a fantastic moment of horror imagery, and quite frankly Annabelle the movie is worth watching for this moment (and the basement scene) alone.
Annabelle Wallis as Mia is also terrific even though her role is fairly underwritten, being no more than a potentially-mad new mother, but being front and centre of the action means she has to keep a level of intensity that defies the role. Its a shame her character hasn’t been given a little more depth, the Rosemary’s Baby references are here quite apparent being a thin blonde trapped in her city apartment much like Mia Farrow, but a bit more originality wouldn’t have gone amiss.
And that sums up Annabelle as a whole. The film was rushed into production after The Conjuring surprise box office haul and whilst everyone involved has risen to the challenge to produce a handsome and occasionally brilliant looking film, the core of the movie, the actual script feels rushed and underdeveloped. The central couple aren’t given anything new to do, Alfre Woodard pops up as the all knowing spiritual woman almost as an afterthought and even Annabelle herself doesn’t do a hell of a lot.
After I finished the film, which I did enjoy a lot despite its problems, I figured I’d watch the opening of The Conjuring, just for completions sake. Its telling that those first five minutes where we first met Annabelle had more ideas and scares than the whole of the film of Annabelle. Its also a little bit sad.