Paranormal horror films have a certain formulaic quality to them, to the point where some cult classic scenes have become almost cinematic clichés. You know: doors slamming shut, machines that come alive at night, shadowy apparitions that creep up on you… They’re the low-hanging fruits of the scary movie genre, the fail-safe way of packing in jolts aplenty on the cheap, but they’re overused precisely because they work unfailingly in making your skin crawl.
It needs a gifted director to go beyond peddling such cheap thrills, as Roman Polanski did with Rosemary’s Baby or James Wan did with The Conjuring. Let’s just say straightaway that John R. Leonetti isn’t that director. Renowned rather more for his cinematography — he cranked the camera in, among other projects, The Conjuring (for which he won the Fright Meter Award) — Leonetti runs wildly amok in the orchard of these low-hanging fruits. If there’s a visual cliché within miles, you can be sure he’ll hunt it down, zoom in up-close (with a thousand violins screeching in the background!) — and milk it for all it’s worth.
And, yet, such is his mastery of the camerawork craft and the eerie lighting that virtually every frame in Annabelle has a creepy horror quality to it, and you can’t think beyond the immediacy of your palpitating heart and your racing pulse. Which is probably a good thing because the storyline skates on pretty thin ice.
Annabelle is positioned as a prequel to The Conjuring — to establish how the doll at the centre of the satanic drama acquired its demoniac qualities. Mia and John (their names are — nudge, wink — an unsubtle directorial hat-tip to Rosemary’s Baby’s lead characters Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) are a young Californian couple preparing for their baby’s coming. But the tranquility of their suburban life is disturbed by a neighbourhood crime that spills over into their home. That scene, in particular, is gripping, and sets the tone for the next 90 minutes.
Once it’s infused with evil, and particularly after the advent of the baby, the doll plays on Mia’s mind, as the devil force looks to harvest a soul. Along the way, Leonetti conjures up many pulsating sequences: I’ll admit unashamedly that the scene in the basement very nearly gave me a heart attack. He’s particularly good at setting the mood and heightening viewers’ expectations of impending horror, stretching that moment till your nerves are jangling (and then some more) — and delivering a thumping denouement.
Annabelle is an unabashed celebration of the cliché, and the performances by the lead actors may be as wooden as the doll at the centre of it all, but it’s guaranteed to scare you witless to the point where you won’t know or won’t care.
Genre: Paranormal horror
Director: John R. Leonetti
Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard
Storyline: A doll possessed by satanic spirits spooks a young family — and us
Bottomline: For all the horror-movie clichés, every frame scares you witless