Annabelle (2014)

Annabelle first published by Film4

Synopsis: Cinematographer and sequel king John R. Leonetti tells the turn-of-the-Seventies origin story of a possessed doll last seen in The Conjuring.

Review: If blockbuster cinema is currently dominated by the Marvel universe, then its closest horror equivalent is the James Wan oeuvre, with his films – Insidious (2010), Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), The Conjuring (2013) – continuing to do good box-office business even as the bottom is starting to fall out of the rest of the genre market. Annabelle fits right into this imaginative world, focussing on the backstory of a demonic doll seen in The Conjuring, yet reprising the notion, familiar from Insidious, of a family who move house to escape a haunting, only to find the haunting moves with them.

Set shortly after the 1969 Manson family killings, Annabelle captures that moment when Sixties optimism about the future turned to Seventies paranoia and Satanic panic. It also takes place roughly between the release of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) – and accordingly Annabelle Wallis’ bedevilled mother shares her forename Mia with the actress who famously played the original Rosemary, while events are brought to a close (or are they?) with a riff on the self-sacrificing defenestration with which Friedkin’s film ended.

Annabelle is directed by Wan’s regular DP John R. Leonetti, who has past form in helming sequels and spinoffs (Mortal Kombat Annihilation, The Butterfly Effect 2). You can tell he has a cinematographer’s eye, as this film’s ‘insidious’ atmosphere derives as much from its creepily canted angles and shadow play as from cheap jump scares (although it has those too). Its ultimate message, spelt out in authoritative text, that we must remain vigilant in the face of evil, is of course just a coded injunction to keep watching horror films (including the inevitable sequel) – but the breezily efficient Annabelle, classier than your average devil doll pic, hardly makes that prospect seem a chore.

In A Nutshell: Leonetti’s The Conjuring spinoff is arguably the best demon doll prequel ever made. It is also good.

© Anton Bitel