Capitalizing off of his highly successful 2013 horror film, “The Conjuring,” prolific Australian producer, writer and director James Wan (writer, producer or director for all of the “Saw” franchise films, the “Insidious” series, “Fast &Furious 7,” and more films) provides a compelling prequel in 2014’s “Annabelle.” Whereas The Conjuring focused on the true story of a case that Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators famous for their investigation of the Amityville Horror as well as a house that was reportedly haunted in Connecticut during the early 1970s, the prequel does not feature any of the living characters from the original story nor does it focus on Ed and Lorraine. In fact, the only character from “The Conjuring” is the prequel’s titular character, Annabelle, a frighteningly ugly vintage doll.
Whereas the sequel featured Hollywood heavy hitters Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, “Annabelle” introduces nearly all-new faces. This new film stars English actress Annabelle Wallis (“The Tudors,” “Pan Am,” “Peaky Blinders”), Ward Horton (“Wolf of Wall Street,” “One Life to Live”) and Alfre Woodard (“Beauty Shop,” “The Family That Preys,” “12 Years A Slave”). Wallis and Horton play a young married couple, Mia and John Gordon, and Alfre Woodard stars as Evelyn, a bookstore owner that lives in the same apartment building as the couple. Surprisingly, it’s the couple’s infant daughter, Leah, who steals the show (the young actress has not yet been credited for the film). Despite the fact that she can barely walk and cannot talk, Leah’s plump cheeks and adorably expressive face offer a great reprieve from the (few) scarier portions of the film.
But Leah is not meant to be the star of the film; that status is meant for Annabelle herself. As far as set up goes, “The Conjuring” did a wonderful job of illustrating the narrative of the prequel; throughout “The Conjuring,” there are only a few mentions and glimpses of Annabelle, each of which hints at the doll’s future on screen. Even though the sequel lacks subtlety in this way, the overall point is fairly clear: Annabelle is somehow integral to Ed and Lorraine’s past. Yet, Annabelle is not the most frightening figure in her solo film, losing much of the ominousness that she previously embodied; she never moves of her own volition, and the horrifying things she makes happen are not even her own actions. It’s safe to say that the scariest thing about Annabelle the doll is her garish makeup. The true horror lies in other elements of the new film.
Unfortunately, because of Annabelle’s lackluster presence as an antagonist, the film does not live up to its hype and honestly falls flat, especially in comparison to “The Conjuring.” Wan is known to use tropes of the horror genre in his films. Unsurprisingly, “Annabelle” continues this trend: complete with creepy dolls, satanic figures and possessed children. Additionally, the film is set during the height of the investigation of Charles Manson’s murders of the LaBianca and Tate families in 1969, Wan sparingly incorporates this event within the narrative. There are plenty mentions of the occult and cults in general, but few depictions of cults overall, something that would have added a macabre element that would have elevated the narrative.
In short, “Annabelle” provides great performances from its actors at the cost of a good story. Instead of adding innovations to his directorial style, Wan chooses to recycle elements that he has become known for in his other films. Because the film offers nothing new to the horror genre, it fails to wow viewers who are looking to spice things up when they head to the movie theater this fall. Perhaps Wan should have gone back to his roots and added an abundance of gore and twists akin to his “Saw” series. Overall, fans of Wan or anyone who would like to satiate their hankering for a decent horror film as Halloween nears should check out “Annabelle.” If you’re looking for something unique and refreshing, look elsewhere.