Annabelle isn’t strictly terrible, we’ve just seen everything it has to offer hundreds of times already, and the film doesn’t do any of it well enough to justify the complete lack of imagination.
As a fun little exercise, I’d like you to imagine that every time I use quotation marks in this review of Annabelle I’m also making incredibly sarcastic air-quotes in real life.
The Conjuring was a big hit. It made almost $300 million in profit off a rather conservative (in Hollywood terms) budget of $20 million. It was about as well-received critically as contemporary horror films get. Based on the “factual” exploits of “paranormal investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren, it was a familiar demonic possession story of an unusually high quality, one which managed to take an incredibly derivative premise and a number of recognisable ghost-movie tropes and still churn out something rather excellent – thanks mostly to director James Wan’s fundamental understanding of both things that go bump in the night, and the people who pay money to see them.
Annabelle is a spin-off of that film – ostensibly an “origin story” for the creepy doll which cropped up here and there throughout. It’s also an incredibly overt homage to Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, albeit one with plenty of on-the-nose references to the Charles Manson “family” thrown in for good measure. The characters are named after the actors who played Rosemary and her spouse, lots of iconography is unnecessarily reused, and, because there has to be some association with The Conjuring in order to make this thing justifiable, the eponymous doll is brought in to function as the embodiment of a crazy teenage hippie’s spirit.
The “real” Annabelle doll is locked away in the Warrens’ museum and blessed twice a month by a Catholic priest, which we’re helpfully told at the end of the film. Casual research reveals it was a regular Raggedy Ann, and because there is nothing scary about that whatsoever, the Annabelle Annabelle is instead a big Victorian monstrosity about the size of a toddler. And because this is a horror film, the main character of Mia (named for Mia Farrow) collects these horrendous fucking things for no adequately explained reason. Hence, Annabelle finds her way into the family home and refuses to leave.
Not that Annabelle herself really bothers to do anything for most of the film. She has some vague telekinetic powers which allow her to mess with bits of furniture and household appliances, but she doesn’t even bother to stand up for nearly an hour. Chucky would have this thing for breakfast. Mia and her husband John (for John Cassavetes) have recently moved from Santa Monica to Pasadena, in order to distance themselves from a violent Manson-style gang attack which resulted in the pregnant Mia being stabbed by, you guessed it, a nutjob called Annabelle, who shortly afterwards killed herself and let some of her tainted cultist blood drip onto the doll. This is supposed to explain why the thing won’t stay in the garbage and keeps messing with the rocking chairs, but honestly, the story stops making sense about twenty minutes in.
Mia’s baby made it out of the stabbing unscathed, and as far as I can work out the doll is after the kid for one contrived reason or another. It isn’t really that important, as the film itself seems to care about this even less than I do. The characterisation and plotting here are perfunctory in the extreme; nothing seems to happen for any logical reason, and everyone involved is a stock genre archetype present only to wander idiotically into a handful of jump-scares.
Even the scares themselves are lacklustre, outside of one effective body-swapping scene which was already – naturally – spoiled in the trailer. Outside of that single, incredibly short sequence, Annabelle has absolutely nothing interesting or original to offer, and even those visual tricks, scenarios and story beats it brazenly pilfers from other, better films are used in the most formulaic way possible.
That’s really the problem with Annabelle as a whole: it isn’t strictly terrible, we’ve just seen everything it has to offer hundreds of times already, and the film doesn’t do any of it well enough to justify the complete lack of imagination, innovation or verve. It’s about as by-the-numbers as Halloween horror releases get, made all the more unsavoury by how vehemently it upsells the tenuous connection between it and The Conjuring.
Don’t be fooled. The Conjuring is worth seeing. But I preferred Annabelle when it was locked in someone’s cupboard.