ANNABELLE

Director: John R. Leonetti; Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman; Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard, Kerry O’Malley, Brian Howe, Eric Landin; Running time: 98 minutes; Certification: 15 }

Few people would have guessed that Annabelle, the supposedly possessed (or rather, demoniacally-inflicted) doll living in the artefact room of Lorraine Warren’s house would have ended up starring in not one, but two, Hollywood films.  Lorraine least of all.  Yet thanks to how extraordinarily well The Conjuring performed globally last year, both commercially and critically, Warner Bros were quick to order a prequel centering on one of the film’s auxiliary spooks; the doll that quietly sits staring into your soul that no parent would ever, with any exception, buy for their child.  Because it’s a film designed more through money than a story which needs to be told, there’s always the potential for things to go horribly wrong, so while hoping and praying for a good old fright fest, I was perfectly prepared for Annabelle to be rubbish.  It isn’t.

James Wan (sadly) isn’t at the helm of this one, instead serving as producer, but the baton has been carefully passed into the safe hands of John Leonetti.  As Wan’s long-term DP, having worked on Insidious 1 & 2, Death Sentence, Dead Silence and The Conjuring, he knows what makes these films work and immediately we feel some sense of comfort as the film opens into that Annabelle conversation at the beginning of The Conjuring.  Rather than some random, outside director hired by the studio, there remains a close connection to the worlds Wan has created; particularly, of course, The Conjuring, and as the film progresses, we realise that Leonetti absolutely understands how to plot scares and make an audience tick.

Turning the clock back to twelve months before the events of The Conjuring, Annabelle finds us in the home of Mia and John Gordon (Wallis & Horton), a well-to-do, Church-going couple with a baby on the way.  After John surprises Mia with a new and apparently hard to find doll, the eponymous Annabelle, to complete a set, strange things begin to happen – and continue to happen after she spookily shows up in their new Pasadenan home after being thrown out.  So, clearly we have a Rosemary’s Baby-esque set-up which promises some scares, and we at least think we know where the whole thing is going – but the impressive thing about the film is just how surprising it is.

For a while we think every good sequence has been used in the trailer, but somewhere in the second act the film turns a corner, both in relation to plot’s direction and the deployment of scares, and the whole thing becomes a quite unpredictable and unsettling ride.  The best scene in the film (which even the trailer didn’t spoil so I’ll try not to here), involving a demonic, dark basement and a lift which won’t close, is genuinely frightening – partly because what comes out of the shadows is totally unexpected, but also because it’s crafted really well.  Leonetti hides everything in shadows to make us question whether we can actually see something or not, boiling the dread and the tension to just the right temperature before unleashing the terror.

Joseph Bishara’s score is once again terrific, squirming under our skin with uncomfortable, raking strings and imperfect tunings.  He’s the Hans Zimmer of horror and, like Leonetti, a long-term contributor to James Wan, but every horror flick should be using him.  He also has this wonderfully morbid knack for playing ridiculously creeping antagonists; after the Insidious’s demon and The Conjuring’s witch, he’s got the make-up on again for Annabelle’s puppeteer, and doing a fine job of it.  Seeing so much of the ghosts and entities could be utterly ridiculous, but Bishara’s performances continue to prove it can be done.

Annabelle is a gleefully spooky surprise.  While the film forgets for large portions that it’s actually about the doll, and perhaps wants to be The Conjuring just a bit too much towards the end where a quote from the absent Lorraine Warren is shoehorned in, it’s a lot more interesting, unexpected and – most importantly – scary than I think many people would have expected.  Like Insidious and The Conjuring, it stayed with me beyond the end credits, and while nothing like as scary as either of them, Annabelle is demonstrably doing enough to get under the skin.  Creepy dolls are back.

4

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