Got myself a barely scary, far too airy, lifeless doll

These days, following the stellar success of Marvel Studio’s superhero film series, it seems that everyone is trying to muscle in on the ‘movie-verse’ game. New Line Cinema is no exception, as is evidenced in this spin-off from its poltergeist picture, last year’s The Conjuring, a side-dish before the inevitable main course: The Conjuring: Part 2.

From cameo to Carrie-like
In the prologue of The Conjuring, as part of our introduction to the case-files of ghost-hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, we met a grotesque antique doll named Annabelle. She was so unpleasant to look at that only a blindly optimistic idiot would pay money to have her in their home. Enter the protagonists of Annabelle.

Mia (Wallis) and John Gordon (Horton) are a young, wholesome, church-going couple, climbing life’s ladder in late 1960s America. Mia is currently at home, expecting their first child, while John is studying for his doctorate of medicine. Things start to go crooked when John completes a section of Mia’s doll collection with a new gift, Annabelle – a vintage collector’s item.

Not the sewing machine!
No sooner is Annabelle sitting on the Gordons’ shelf than their house is invaded by Satanic cult members intent on murdering Mia and her unborn child. This scene is foreshadowed by a news report on the television about the Manson Family’s invasion of Roman Polanski’s Californian home and the subsequent massacre there. While the assailants are shot by police officers, something is passed during the bloodshed from a dying female cultist to the doll, and the Gordons’ lives are beset by increasingly strange goings on – their sewing machine and television start functioning of their own accord and corn pops all by itself …

Scary doll movies are a reoccurring sub-genre – there’s possessed ventriloquist doll films such as the UK’s Devil’s Doll (1964) and Magic (1978) and then there’s the murderous undead toy as seen in Child’s Play (1988), which incorporated a heaped spoonful of comedy to help the horror go down. Of course whatever effectiveness these films have stems, like the killer clown sub-genre, from their violation of something we hold sacred: the sanctity of our children’s trust. Unfortunately, it’s rare such films manage to deliver the frights successfully without veering unintentionally (or intentionally) into comedy.

Do as Roman’s did
Recognising this, director Leonetti (a relative newcomer to directing but with a long list of cinematography credits including, appropriately, Child’s Play 3) and co attempted to side-step those pitfalls by focusing less on the doll itself and more on the secondary effects of a home plagued by demonic evil. To that end, Annabelle pays a great deal of homage to Rosemary’s Baby – with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. There’s already the rather tasteless reference to Sharon Tate’s murder along with certain props and design elements that nod to the classic. And even the protagonists’ names are lifted from the stars of Polanski’s film: John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow.

If Cassavetes and Farrow’s roles had been written so lifelessly and cast this plastic, I doubt we’d still be talking about Rosemary’s Baby, let alone paying homage to it. Similarly the scares are only occasionally more complex than a cheap ‘BOO!’.

However, a teenage audience yet to discover classics of the genre will miss the references and enjoy the ride.

Annabelle
Dir: John R Leonetti; US horror, 2014, 99 mins; Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola
Premiered October 16
Playing Nationwide

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