Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Annabelle


John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are a married couple expecting their first child. As a gift, John presents Mia with a doll she has been trying to find for years. That night, their neighbours are brutally murdered by two members of a cult, who make their way into John and Mia's house. After attacking them, the Police arrive and kill the male attacker, while the female kills herself whilst holding the doll. A drop of blood falls onto the doll's face and into its eye. Soon after, John and Mia begin experiencing strange demonic activity, and believe the doll to be the cause.

Prequels are always tricky. You have to take the ideas and, potentially, the themes of the original and adapt them in a way that benefits both the prequel and the predecessor. In that sense, Annabelle is both a triumph and a failure; possibly at the same time. It's nice to have some information around the doll that was so memorable from 2012's The Conjuring; a film that was fantastically made, but failed to make a frightening impression. But it doesn't really go anywhere beyond that back story. Besides the pretty stellar Oculus, 2014 has been a fairly lackluster year for horror films. Annabelle neither fits this trend, nor does it make a claim for one of the year's best. It's a passable 98 minutes with just about enough substance to keep it going, but it all feels frustratingly familiar.

What impressed me most about Annabelle was the acting. It's hardly going to be winning any awards, but it was refreshing to have characters that we could almost care about due to them being portrayed pretty well. Gary Dauberman's script is ridden with just about every horror cliché you can name. If you took in a bingo card of typical horror tropes, you'd have a full house by the 20 minute mark. But both Horton and, particularly, Wallis somehow give an appropriate amount of depth to these otherwise fairly bland characters. When the film reaches it's annoyingly underwhelming final act, Wallis carries the film solely on her shoulders, and she does this well. The only real weak link is Alfre Woodard, who's character is so painstakingly clichéd that not even an Oscar winner could save her.

As a horror film, though, Annabelle is consistently hit and miss. For the most part, it does well at creating an atmosphere, but throws it all away with a cheap jump scare in the form of a loud noise. Loud noise scares are effective in the moment, but are long gone by the time the lights come on again when the film ends. Jumping at a loud noise is a human instinct, and no recent horror film has really had a jump scare that's all that effective (besides perhaps Paranormal Activity 2's kitchen scene. Now that was good). Whilst the jump scares have little effect, there is a scene towards the end of the film's middle act that does show a lot of promise. Mia is trying to escape a demon chasing her down in the hotel's basement into a lift, and director John Leonetti shows most of this in one long take. Long takes are always effective in horror films; by refusing to imply to audience's expectations and cut to a different view, the long takes feel uneasy and a lot more tense than the situation probably is. This particular scene is hardly a masterpiece, but in the moment it's fantastically creepy and is the only real dose of well executed horror that Annabelle offers.

One other impressive element of Annabelle is its camera work and cinematography. A lot of horror films are nicely shot, particularly this year's Oculus, but Annabelle has some brilliantly effective work that surpasses a lot of what I've seen lately. Leonetti uses close ups at obscure angles well to simultaneously show us something, and create at atmosphere, even if this is then ruined by a THUD or a BANG. During the previously mentioned basement/lift scene, Leonetti uses lots of weirdly angled tracking shots, drawing us into the scene, but in an uneasy and slightly obscuring way. Although, the repeated close ups of Annabelle's face do become tiring. The film both opens and closes with shots of her face, and with about ten others in between, they sort of lose their effect quite quickly. That said, the attack on the neighbours' house at the film's beginning was beautifully framed from inside Mia and John's house.

Annabelle is by no means a disaster, but it's hardly great, either. What's most frustrating is that there are flares of innovation scattered throughout. Leonetti's camerawork shines through, as does Wallis' acting, but it's let down with more clichés than you can count and a lackluster effort to be truly frightening, despite a few good sequences. Whereas The Conjuring was a brilliantly well made film, but lacked any real scares, Annabelle is almost a binary opposite. It's incompetently put together, but does have a few good sequences, even if nowhere near as many as you'd want. With a Conjuring sequel on the way, and potentially an Annabelle franchise, hopefully they can combine the best efforts of the two and make a horror film worthy of our time. Annabelle is passable entertainment; no more, no less.

To Summarise: It's poorly written and loaded with unappreciated clichés, but Annabelle is a well acted, effectively shot horror, with just enough substance to sustain it.

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