Edgar Allan Poe crafted a better supernatural drama in his poem, Annabel Lee, than with director John R. Leonetti’s studio made product, Annabelle. This horror film about a haunted doll attempting to ruin the love John and Mia Gordon (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) have for each other and their newborn daughter, Lea, is not without some problems. Although there is a slight connection with The Conjuring in this film, that importance is never explained. Instead, the way this film dwells upon a church sermon to guide the plot ruins the film.
The problem with the modern horror these days lays in the production team not understanding what makes a terrifying age-old concept uniquely scary. Cursed dolls have existed for a long time. Had the entire production team stayed overnight at Isla de las Munecas – The Island of the Dolls (located near Mexico City), they might have crafted an entirely different product. At least their experiences there would have seeped into the film a lot more than the premise of a cult murderer’s blood spilling upon a once beautiful Victorian age doll to make it haunted.
But nobody except the audience are aware that this deux et machina is what gets this film going. Otherwise, this movie is no better than a fond favourite to some horror enthusiast’s memory. Case in point, the pilot episode of Friday the 13th, the TV Series (1987) did a better job with the cursed doll formula since it was a totemic reminder of how dolls were sometimes used in shamanic if not animistic ways. They can influence the living in unsettling tones. No, we’re not talking about Chucky from Child’s Play where killer Charles Lee Ray transferred his essence to a doll to continue his murderous rampage. Neither does this movie reference the Puppet Master series; the concept behind that film’s mystical creations required siphoning out a liquid at the base of the brain of a “donor” (it’s believed to contain the essence / soul ) and injecting it into a doll so the dead can live again.
This film reproduces the latter idea but it does not go far enough. Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula, “The blood is the life!” And it is this life-force of a crazed Annabelle Higgins that gives life to the inert doll that Mia once loved. Mia is forced to learn who this Higgins is. In the film’s introduction, she is the daughter of their neighbours, the Higgins, but when she forces her way in to the household to assault them (she was kidnapped by a sinister cult when young), that’s when the Gordon’s pristine world gets unsettled.
The purpose of Father Perez (Tony Amendola) is limited to mostly distinguishing when evil will arise and more could have been done with this character if only screenwriter Gary Dauberman made it so. Amendola is a fine actor and is best remembered as the seasoned soldier Master Bra’tac and sometimes father figure to Teal’c in Stargate SG-1. To see some of that persona in this film would have given this movie more gravitas.
Instead, all of that is segregated to the character of Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), an African-American whom Mia quickly befriends when everyone else in her apartment find her as “unusual” in a Rosemary’s Baby kind of way. The nods to this classic film by Roman Polanski tend to be more intentional than not and this ode is completely unnecessary. When considering the era this film is made to convey includes the rise of cults to ruin the American ideal, Charles Manson gets more than a passing reference in this movie; if the film wanted to really go Helter Skelter, then there would be more of a horror of society product than just a story about a possessed doll. The ideas are there, but this film does not go far enough to link everything into a coherent product.