With Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ imploding after the failure of The Mummy – following the similar failures of Dracula Untold, The Wolfman and Van Helsing – it’s ironic that a shared cinematic horror universe has been spawned from the far less promising raw material of The Conjuring. Universal has a seeming lock on the most iconic forms of the major characters from horror fiction, and yet evidently have no idea how best to use them in a contemporary movie. Warners, thanks to Conjuring creator James Wan, have a stash of creepy props which were seen in the background of a surprisingly successful spook movie with one of the more spurious based-on-fact rationales of recent years … and the series as a whole controversially depicts the real-life figures of Ed and Lorraine Warren as unambiguously saintly demon-busting good guys (mainstream opinion, especially from anyone who has ever had anything to do with the Warrens, tends to differ). However, the creepy doll Annabelle – designed for the movie, since the real-life inspiration was a commercially available Raggedy Ann model – made such a vivid impression with limited screen time in The Conjuring that she earned her own spinoff story in Annabelle, which was a bit enough hit to merit this prequel.
Though both Annabelle films were scripted by Gary Dauberman, they feel like alternate pitches for an Annabelle origin story – for the most part, this tells a story that seems to be incompatible with what we’ve already been told, only for the last few scenes to take a wild tack that veers into the prologue of Annabelle, which itself is a feature-length set-up for the prologue of The Conjuring. Copping a trick from Marvel, which now seems to be the go-to model for shared universes, there are a few tiny elements referencing The Nun, an in-the-works further chapter scripted by Dauberman which delves into one of the most memorable incidental spooks from The Conjuring 2. Yes, this extends to a post-credits tag. At some point, presumably, the Warrens will run out of cursed objects and the series will have to follow them to their most famous case and reboot the franchise to its original impetus – the long-lived and insanely complex Amityville Horror filmography. In the meantime, there’s this … a hokey fright show built around its jolts and trading in a selection of all-too-familiar phobias. The scariness of vintage dolls is now almost a given (besides Annabelle, we get some Punch and Judy puppets), so the film finds time to touch on other touchstones of junk shoppe terror – big old houses, dumb waiters, scarecrows, farm machinery, covered wells, vintage gramophones, ambiguous notes, creepy little girls, sheeted ghost figures, closets papered with Bible pages, spidery-fingered hands, invalids in half-masks hidden behind mosquito nets, nuns (on the whole, the Conjuring series is as Catholic as The Exorcist), and brooding character actors.
Here, the original Annabelle (aka ‘Bee’) is the bright daughter (Samara Lee) of dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his loving wife (Miranda Otto) – who gets run over on an isolated rural road in the 1940s, just after Mullins has lovingly boxed what he intended to be the first of a run of 100 limited edition dolls in her image (did such collectibles exist back then?). Twelve years later, a busload of orphan girls are brought out to the Mullins place – which is in the middle of some mid-western nowhere – and are enthusiastic about the place until the ghost stuff starts happening. The main targets are Janice (Talitha Bateman), a polio-sufferer in a leg-brace, and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson, from Ouja Origin of Evil) … but you have to have paid close attention to the story so far to twig that the doll isn’t possessed by little dead Bee but by the demon who will become the Warrens’ arch-enemy. And, in fact, it’s a gray area as to what exactly the threat is – with this film’s version of the inciting moment of the haunting buried in a late-in-the-day explanatory flashback – and why it’s making such a nuisance of itself. Other questions that go unanswered involve why folks who know their home is haunted by a malignant, dangerous spirit would invite those unwary orphans – and a nice nun (Stephanie Sigman) – to come and live with them in the first place? Brad Greenquist, a minor horror icon (Pet Sematary), has a tiny pointless cameo, suggesting of a strand left on the cutting room floor – though this runs at a surprisingly baggy 109 mins when most horrors in its weight class come in under an hour and a half.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, following his modestly effective Lights Out and landing him a gig in another universe with Shazam!, this might not make a lick of sense, but looks great – the central location (an old dark house in the middle of a field) is terrific. The mostly young cast are engaging (only familiar face LaPaglia seems miscast ). and it makes more sense pitting Annabelle against children who might conceivably play with dolls than it did having her bother a nice young couple in Annabelle. It’s a parade of familiar spine-tingles, but they do still work.