Upon the release of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), it seemed pretty clear to anyone with a pulse that its side-story about a demonically possessed doll named Annabelle would make a future appearance. New Line Cinema loves horror franchises, and as soon as the numbers for The Conjuring came in Annabelle (2014) became inevitable. Directed by John R. Leonetti, the second entry attempts to capitalize on previous success. The film released to largely negative reviews, but many of those reviews judged it in the shadow of its predecessor.
However, the film itself may not be so terrible when judged on its own merits.
The Story of Annabelle
John and Mia Form expect their first baby soon. Mia, collects porcelain dolls (a clear indicator that John should file for divorce). John bring home a rare doll that Mia had been coveting for some time. She names it Annabelle. Later that evening, just after going to bed, Mia hears a terrified scream from the next door neighbors. John runs over and finds the neighbors brutally stabbed to death. Unbeknownst to Mia, after killing their neighbors, the murderers hid in her home. The invaders stab Mia just before the male attacker is shot by the police. The other attacker, a woman, slits her own throat while holding the doll.
The Form’s eventually learn that the killers worshipped in a demonic cult. How foreboding?
Bumps in the Night
Immediately, the Forms begin experiencing supernatural events. John throws the doll out in hopes that it will help Mia settle down. Unable to overcome the trauma of the home invasions, the couple decide to move out of their house and into an apartment after the birth of their daughter. Inexplicably, John again finds the possessed doll in the moving boxes (yet another opportunity to get divorced and leave). This time Mia stops him from throwing it out again. Unsurprisingly, supernatural occurrences begin almost immediately in their new home. The situation escalates to the point that Mia fears for her and her daughter’s life.
Evelyn and Father Perez
In an interesting departure, this entry does not feature Ed and Lorraine Warren. In a future timeline, The Conjuring details how the Warren’s kept this very same doll locked in a glass case to protect visitors from its evil. Writer Gary Dauberman’s story closes the gap with this film by explaining how the Warren’s come into possession of the doll and suggests the Warren’s presence in the early frames, but they never appear in the film. The Warrens provide an important service to The Conjuring universe and without them, Annabelle lacks a simple plot device for explaining the unexplainable in terms that advance the supernatural goals of the movie. Without the Warrens, Annabelle required another approach to drive the narrative. Her name is Evelyn.
Evelyn lives in the same building as the Form’s. She also owns a bookstore. Together with Mia, they begin to uncover the truth behind the satanic cult that attacked them. The attackers worshipped in The Disciples of Ram and paid tribute to a demon named Malthus. Malthus must take a soul, and he uses any trickery necessary to make that happen. Father Perez presides over the Form’s Catholic church. He informs the Forms that sometimes demons attach themselves to inanimate object in order to provide a channel for achieving their evil goals.
Malthus must take a soul, and he uses any subterfuge necessary to make that happen.
Lacking, but Still Scary
Annabelle occasionally lands some pretty scary moments, but in the end it mostly leave the audience wanting for James Wan. While James Wan shows up in the producer list, his absence behind the camera shows. John R. Leonetti’s major triumph comes from a scene that places Mia in the dark basement of the apartment complex. Clearly something sinister hides in the darkness. She runs for the elevator, but the doors of the elevator keep opening to the basement.
She must face her fears and run into the darkness and up the dark stairs. During this pursuit, one of the most frightening scenes occurs when Mia looks down the stairs that she just traversed and sees Malthus, silent, shrouded in darkness and totally still. Malthus pursues her up the stairs until she narrowly escapes into her apartment.
Apart from that, many of the scares come in the form of simple jump scares. These scares often get the intended effect, but they lack the finesse and the impact that James Wan effortlessly achieves. From a critical perspective, the negative response seems to be born of a gap in expectations rather than a total lack of quality. Despite the poor critical reviews, Annabelle did $257M at the box office on a $6.5 budget. If anything, it scored a massive success for New Line Cinema and their fledgling franchise.
New Line Cinema thought enough of the films success to launch its own sub-franchise with two additional films: Annabelle Creation (2017) and Annabelle: Comes Home.
Still, a Decent Film
Unquestionably, Annabelle pales in comparison to its forbearer. Its plot stumbles over the clumsy cult trope. It somewhat implausibly stages much of the action in a multi-tenant apartment complex. I mean really, nobody else sees the lights flickering or hears all of the commotion? Finally, it relies on loosely stitching basic scare techniques together with little artistic connective tissue. Yet, Annabelle and her demon, Malthus, make for an unholy dynamic duo and some of jump scares payout, even if they lack the mastery of James Wan behind the camera.
I still feel that this film possesses merit, but it may be best viewed with a generous time spread between it and The Conjuring. Back to back viewing (like I did), made for a disappointing experience. Yet, with my cloak of objectivity, I tried to isolate my emotions from what I saw on screen. What was left still had enough punch to seem worthwhile. Rather than hunt it down for your collection, it might be better to catch it on one of its endless spins on streaming media.