Don’t let the sweet and seemingly innocent name “Annabelle” fool you. This is a horror movie, featuring the new breed of retro-horror that I particularly enjoy. It is a prequel to last summer’s blockbuster hit “The Conjuring,” and while this installment isn’t directed by James Wan, it does follow his style he set forth in both that film and his “Insidious” movies.
The film takes place about ten years before the events of “The Conjuring” and focuses on the creepy possessed doll that book-ended that movie. The story follows a young couple named Mia and John (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton) who are trying to make a living while the husband finishes training to be a doctor. Mia gets pregnant, and they start preparing the home for a baby. However, when a home invasion next door spreads to their home, a malevolent spirit attaches itself to one of Mia’s hand-crafted dolls and follows them, hungry for their souls.
While it’s not as well constructed as “The Conjuring” was, “Annabelle” still is a lot of fun to watch. Like “The Conjuring,” it uses suspense, shadows and sound to make the moments scary. I’ll be forever grateful to James Wan for bringing this back into vogue when horror movies seemed to be circling the drain of found footage and shakycams.
This style works especially well for this movie and its predecessor because they are both period pieces. Granted “Annabelle” takes place in the 1960s, but even more than the 70s, this was a time in which filmmaking was more about precision and action on the screen rather than via the camera itself. So the technique works to enhance the period in which the film takes place.
The emotional games the film plays are similar to Wan’s “Insidious” because it focuses on the psychological torment of a housewife who could be just going crazy at home. Similarly, it relies on practical in-camera effects rather than overdoing the spirits with CGI and digital manipulation.
And that, of course, brings us to Annabelle herself. Like the Weeping Angels from “Doctor Who,” Annabelle never moves on her own, but you know there’s something moving her off-camera. This is handled very effectively throughout the movie, adding to the creepiness and mystery of the doll.
Sure, like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” you know this doll wasn’t right from the very moment it appears on screen. Even the shots of the yet-to-be-possessed doll are creepy as hell, and this elicited quite a few giggles throughout the audience because who the heck would put this thing in a room, staring at a baby? Still, that’s part of the fun of a horror movie like this. You know what’s coming. You know there’s a demon lurking around somewhere, and the characters will still walk right into the trap.
I find myself enjoying the slow-burn nature of these movies and the attention to detail in terms of set design, atmosphere, lighting and the sound mix. It’s a huge step up from found footage, which relies on exactly none of these things (and in fact rejects them as a whole in the genre).
I also appreciate the fact that this is getting a more appropriate October release. Sure, I loved “The Conjuring,” but there was something not-quite-right about releasing that movie in the summer (though I’m sure the studio would disagree as it counts all the money it made). I welcome horror movies in the fall. In fact, I crave them. October is for horror movie watching, and it’s nice to see mainstream Hollywood get back on that bus instead of cowering in August and January while only movies like a “Saw” or “Paranormal Activity” sequel comes out for Halloween.