Film review: Imagination runs wild in Annabelle

Notable horror film producer James Wan is behind Annabelle, the latest in babydoll-possessed-by-a-demon flicks. Publicity photo. Notable horror film producer James Wan is behind Annabelle, the latest in babydoll-possessed-by-a-demon flicks. Publicity photo.

When it comes to paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the further a movie moves away from the “true” story as documented by these proven frauds, the better it gets. Despite its success with audiences at the time of its release, going back to watch the aggressively mediocre The Amityville Horror after the many inconsistencies in the story and outright inventions were passed off as fact, removes the only reason to see it in the first place (including its many sequels and awful remake). Then, with last year’s The Conjuring, James Wan utilized the story and setting of another of the Warrens’ tales, but altered the lore in order to focus on the existential terror of demonic possession without letting the gimmick of being “factual” get in the way.

Annabelle doubles as both a prequel and spinoff to The Conjuring, focusing on the origins of the memorable intro sequence of the possessed doll, said to be the host of a spirit named Annabelle Higgins. The documented origins of the Annabelle doll—a typical Raggedy Ann, it should be noted, and not the freaky dead-eyed ceramic monstrosity of the films—do not go earlier than when it was purchased used at a hobby store, giving director John R. Leonetti even more of a blank slate to play with, and the film is better for it.

Set in 1970, the story follows young married couple Mia and John Gordon, the first owners of the doll. The two seem to be on the fast track to a beautiful, bougie life, with him finishing med school and her pregnant with their first child. But one night, they are attacked in their home by members of a Mansonesque cult with a satanic tilt. As one of the intruders—Annabelle Higgins—dies, she draws a symbol on the wall in her own blood, which then falls into the doll. Then demonic shit hits the fan.

Annabelle is not great, and director Leonetti seems to know this, yet it is way more fun than it has a right to be. Leonetti has some experience with doll-related horror films, having worked as the cinematographer for Child’s Play 3 prior to filling that same role for many of Wan’s recent films. With this experience, it’s possible that he went into this project knowing full well that there is no way to convincingly make a doll scary on its own without being a little bit silly, which is the only motivation we can gather for the ridiculous opening crawl about dolls having been used as conduits throughout human history. As the film progresses, Leonetti leans less and less on the doll for the creep factor as it becomes a symbol for a greater evil with intentions beyond stalking and killing.

For the first 45 and closing 10 minutes, Leonetti seems to be a workman director delivering an assignment within the confines set by the studio and the intellectual property he was given, leaving him with 48 minutes in the middle to let his visual and atmospheric imagination run wild. It’s not great, and no one ever intended it to be, but the fact that even the mediocre products of the James Wan-led horror revival can be this much fun means we can never, ever write off a movie with his name anywhere in the credits, no matter how dumb it may look.

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