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Non-Review Review: Annabelle

Annabelle certainly looks pretty. Not the doll, of course. The doll looks like the children’s toy version of Jack Nicholson. There is something immediately and effectively intense about the figure at the centre of this horror spin-off, to the point where it’s hard to imagine anybody wanting the toy in their home in the first place. To paraphrase Stephen King’s criticism of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, it is not a question of if this doll will start killing people, but when.

However, the production design on Annabelle is quite striking. It very much a period horror film in the way that The Conjuring was a period horror film. This time, we are visiting the sixties rather than the seventies. There are lots of bright colours and stylish clothes, and the film works hard to capture the mood and aesthetic of the era – or, at the very least, the era as we remember it. Annabelle feels like a horror film effectively riding the waves of sixties nostalgia that has rocked popular culture in recent years.

Well, it'll never be a collector's item now...

Well, it’ll never be a collector’s item now…

Sadly, Annabelle is not pretty enough to distract from its rather fundamental problems. Its script has some good ideas, but no real idea what to do with them. So, instead, it falls back on a kitchen sink approach to modern horror. The script for Annabelle is a collection of sequences and stock elements copied wholesale from recent films like Insideous or Sinister or The Conjuring. While those films did not necessarily have fresh scares, they were blowing the dust off some very classic horror movie tropes.

Here, it feels almost like reheated leftovers.

A doll's house...

A doll’s house…

There are some nice ideas here. Like The Conjuring, Annabelle has a very clear sense of period. It understands the mood that it seeks to evoke, even if it is a bit less adept at imitation. The sixties have a special place in popular history. They are now half-a-century distant, which puts them outside of living memory for a significant portion of the population. To these people, the sixties are more an idea than an actual time.

Annabelle doesn’t take place in anything approaching the real sixties. Instead, the horror unfolds within the popular imagination’s version of the decade. Young couple Mia and John return home early in the film to discover that John has left the front door on the latch. “You have to start locking the door John,” Mia advises her husband. “Things are changing.” Bob Dylan could scarcely have put it more poetic himself.

"Be a doll and leave these kids alone..."

“Be a doll and leave these kids alone…”

Over the course of the film, John and Mia move home. They start the film in a nice suburban house. It is a community where everybody seems to know everybody. They walk home from church with their neighbours, and there’s a sense that everybody respects and appreciates one another. it is the sort of suburban community that likely holds bake sales and picnic days, where neighbours check up on each other.

Later in the film, the duo move to a high-rise apartment block. It is a very dehumanising experience. Kids in the hallway are acutely aware of stranger danger. Although they know none of their neighbours by name, Mia has learned to time their routines by listening through the thin walls. It is a nightmare of urban living, nobody knows anybody, despite the fact that everybody is piled in on top of one another. Annabelle is not subtle in its suggestion of changing times.

Also, sixties prams are super creepy...

Also, sixties prams are super creepy…

There are points when Annabelle comes quite close to working. The idea of transitioning from an attack in the style of the Manson Family’s murder of Sharon Tate to a pastiche on Rosemary’s Baby is just bold enough to work. The iconography and the romance of the sixties is just rich enough that the film can really sell the idea that this was the decade where innocence died and people learned to live in fear of random violence and arbitrary brutality.

The film is not subtle about this, of course. The script is sure to drop the word “cult” into conversation as often as possible, just in case viewers don’t understand why those strange horrific young people are acting the way that they are. Shortly before one brutal early sequence, John and Mia are watching a news report that handily (and bluntly) summarises what the Manson Family were and even makes explicit reference to the killing of Sharon Tate. The film stops just short of offering viewers a caption on the subject.

"There's. Something. In the apartment above us."

“There’s. Something. In the apartment above us.”

However, the film rather promptly runs into bother, devolving into a collection of generic and stock horror clichés. Mia and John never feel like characters. They are just cyphers, objects inserted into a familiar horror formula – weird stuff happens; Mia is victimised; Mia does research; things escalate; it is inevitably a demon. There’s even a well-meaning priest and a book story owner with an interest in the occult to help out. There’s none of the humanity that Ron Livingstone and Lili Taylor brought to The Conjuring.

Annabelle is painfully blunt. There are no frills here. There’s no savouring of the experience, no nuance, no craft. It is very workmanlike. When a priest threatens to interfere with demonic plans, he is dispatched in the most direct manner possible. When John takes Mia at her word about the haunting, it’s not because the film has established that he trusts her, it’s because the film needs to get the point where they are both on the same page.

The hand that rocks the creepy-ass doll in that rocking chair...

The hand that rocks the creepy-ass doll in that rocking chair…

The movie is a spin-off from The Conjuring, and it is painfully keen to stress that fact. Ironically, neither Patrick Wilson nor Vera Farmiga actually appear in the film, making it seem like a particularly cynical exercise. The movie opens with the Annabelle sequence from The Conjuring, awkwardly editing out the two leads from that film. The script clumsily suggests that the cult was trying to “conjure” a demon, in what feels like an on-the-nose title drop of the parent film.

At one point, a character makes reference to the Warren family, before assuring viewers that they are on the other coast and thus cannot stop by this particular horror film. It is a very weird way of structuring a film around its predecessor, one that clearly speaks to the importance of brand in this post-Avengers world, desperate to provide some sense of shared continuity while reluctant to put in any of actual groundwork such a shared continuity would require.

"Are the lambs still screaming?"

“Are the lambs still screaming?”

Although the Manson Family vibe and the sixties setting are initially refreshing, they quickly give way to stock elements. Apparently psychotic cultists are not scary in their own right, so we are offered a shot of a goat’s head belt buckle on one member and quickly assure that they had an interest in “the occult.” As is the style with so many modern horror films, this isn’t a ghost or a possessed object, it is a literal demon – a demon that manifests physically in a very literal way.

Many of the scares in Annabelle come directly from movies like The Conjuring or Insidious. It’s a checklist of expected scary sequences. There’s nothing wrong with riffing on classic scares and using tried and tested techniques, but there’s a sense that Annabelle is really just assembling a playlist from moments that worked in the recent slew of demonic horror films. At one point, there’s even a clumsy restaging of that effective “demon is right behind the foregrounded object” shot that was effective in Insidious.

Just what every family needs!

Just what every family needs!

It’s a shame, because there are points where it feels like Annabelle might capitalise on his setting. In a sequence that owes a nice debt to Scream, stove-top popcorn is used to generate tension. At another point, quiet-by-modern-standards sixties pop eerily and ironically echoes through a mostly empty apartment. At another point, the LP switches directions, playing backwards to create an uncanny sound that immediately and effectively evokes the sixties scare about backwards masking.

Sadly, these moments never galvanise into anything particularly effective. Annabelle feels like a misfire, and horror story for all the wrong reasons.

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