Annabelle (2014, 1 hr, 38 mins)
Remember that creepy doll from The Conjuring? The one based on the real Annabelle ragdoll paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren kept (and still keep) behind glass because she was so supernaturally dangerous? Well her story is finally here, presented as a prequel to the wildly successful possession film about a family plagued by angry spirits.
Annabelle starts out with the seemingly normal life of a normal couple John (Ward Horton) and Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis) a year before the Perron family experience their nightmare. Happy and expecting their first child, they are god-fearing, wholesome and sweet, and John has a bright if not stressful future as a doctor. One evening, after a mild spat, John presents Mia with one of the ugliest and creepiest dolls you will ever see to complete her rare, ugly and creepy doll collection in their baby’s nursery. After a home invasion where murderous cult members attack John and Mia, a series of chilling events escalate into a battle between good, evil and innocent souls.
I think I am the only person who enjoyed this movie. After reading countless reviews slamming this film, I am going out on a limb to say that this is a solid prequel. The Conjuring is a hard act to follow, so to put that much expectation on a second film is a little unfair, especially when the writer, Gary Dauberman, is creating an entire background for the doll instead of picking and choosing from factual accounts found in The Conjuring. I wonder if it’s younger reviewers who don’t like the old school references and low-fi horror? Or maybe I am becoming senile? I personally appreciated the nods to classic films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, from the protagonists names honouring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, to the somewhat gloomy apartment they move to, and the archetypical priest, but maybe I am too simple in my tastes? Who knows. You may also notice lead actress Wallis’ first name Annabelle is a weird coincidence, and her uncanny resemblance to Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s late wife who was tragically murdered by Charles Manson and his followers while she was pregnant. It is a clever mix of casting, historical events, and writing that perpetuates a feel and style of vintage horror that doesn’t become campy or tongue-in-cheek. This is due in part to the great sets and wardrobe, and minimal but seamless special effects to respect the classic forerunners.
Low tech doesn’t mean the film wasn’t scary though. I enjoyed the jump scares and really dark, chilling scenes that will be nightmare fodder for years to come. There are also a couple of old school household accidents involving a sewing machine and Jiffy Pop that I was constantly warned about as a kid. And that doll? Annabelle’s design, created by special fx artist Tony Rosen, was absolutely hair-raising. As the evil grew within, her already disturbing face became more hideous in the most subtle but spine-tingling way. Her lack of movement was also key in this film. They didn’t cheapen the terror by making her walk around or move a limb. It created a fantastically sickening anticipation and authentic fear. I think a lot of people will wonder why these dolls in general were so ugly, but we have to remember the aesthetics of the time. Creepy looking dolls were a thing back then. I know because I had a 3 foot Wendy Walker doll that freaked me out a little as a child, in fact, I bet we all had that one doll or toy we had to turn away in order to fall asleep.
The performances were good and almost reminiscent of the vintage General Hospital episodes that Mia watched. Again, not campy, but understated to mimic the wholesome values of the times, although the motherhood message was a little overdone. I really enjoyed Evelyn, played by the ageless Alfre Woodard, the book store owner that befriends and eventually helps Mia. I am so grateful that she wasn’t a stereotype of what Hollywood would paint an African-American woman to be in the late 60’s (whatever that is!). Her character was a grieving mother who felt a kinship with Mia, and this role could have been played by anyone. Kudos to the casting team and producers for choosing a woman of colour. My only issue with the film is the introduction of some children in Mia’s building. I wished they would have explored their characters. Also look out for my favourite demon/composer Joseph Bishara, the go-to for the James Wan team of terror, who is always terrifying.
I will state again, at the risk of having popcorn or a shoe thrown at me, that I liked Annabelle. I might be alone in my enjoyment, but I think it’s good for younger horror fans who haven’t experienced the classics yet, and great for us oldies who love a good throwback that pays homage to well-made vintage horror.