Film review: ANNABELLE, from Built For Speed

In the last decade a few films have used a distinctive approach to re-invigorate what was an ailing supernatural horror genre.  Paranormal Activity whipped up some decent scares with nerve jangling use of the found footage aesthetic while Aussie director James Wan’s box office hit The Conjuring effectively employed a no-frills 1970’s film making style as well as a respectful tip of the hat to other classic horror films.  Perhaps the most impressive and unsettling part of The Conjuring was the sequence involving the extremely sinister Annabelle doll.  Looking like Linda Blair from The Exorcist, Annabelle tapped into our real and entirely understandable fear of creepy dolls and puppets.  Due to the effectiveness and popularity of that segment in The Conjuring, we now have a prequel of sorts in the film simply titled Annabelle.  Although occasionally clunky and derivative, Annabelle is a surprisingly stylish and effective spook fest.

The film mostly takes place in the late 1960’s a few years before events in The Conjuring and focuses on the disturbing events afflicting the young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) who had the evil doll before The Conjuring’s two nurses.  Mia and recently qualified doctor John are enjoying life as new parents when they’re subjected to a bizarre and savage home invasion from two knife wielding members of a demonic cult who seem to have an unusual fascination with Mia’s Annabelle doll.  Barely surviving the attack Mia and John soon witness strange events occurring around their home with unexplained noises, appliances starting by themselves and then much worse.

This film could easily have become a ridiculous Chucky-style killer doll schlock-fest but Director John R. Leonetti wisely shifts the focus from the doll to Mia.  The supernatural threat and bizarre disturbances that occur in her home in many ways reflect the uncertainties and anxieties of a young mother cut off from the regular adult life she once knew.  In this respect the film draws heavily on Rosemary’s Baby in which Mia Farrow’s expectant mother Rosemary became the isolated victim of a demonic conspiracy.  The fact that Annabelle Wallis’ character is named Mia doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.  The film also aesthetically recalls Rosemary’s Baby with its 1960’s setting and fashions.  It also situates the story within a similar cultural context as the 60’s turned ugly and violence of Charles Manson usurped the hippies and free love in the headlines.  Unfortunately, Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton don’t give the memorable nuanced performances we saw from Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby.

Rather than classic film references, feminist sub-text or cultural analysis, most people will see this film for the scares.  There are some moderately effective pop-out scares as well as scenes of creeping tension as the evil forces begin to take over the familiar domestic setting. There’s one particularly unnerving sequence as the Annabelle doll levitates in a way that recalls The Exorcist.  When will directors learn, however, that it is not necessary to signal each scare with a bang as loud as a nuclear bomb.

Just as The Conjuring impressed with its distinctive look, Annabelle is also strikingly filmed with inventive use of camera angles and clever point of view shots. One scene of a violent murder shot through a window is particularly effective and recalls the sort of inventive framing Alfred Hitchcock used. 

Don’t be deterred Chucky comparisons Annabelle, while silly and clichéd in places, is a better than expected horror film.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Horror.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): John R. Leonetti.

Release date: 2nd October 2014.

Running time: 98 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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