Annabelle Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
John Form has found the perfect gift for his expectant wife, Mia – a beautiful, rare vintage doll in a pure white wedding dress. But Mia’s delight with Annabelle doesn’t last long. On one horrific night, their home is invaded by members of a satanic cult, who violently attack the couple. Spilled blood and terror are not all they leave behind. The cultists have conjured an entity so malevolent that nothing they did will compare to the sinister conduit to the damned that is now… Annabelle. (From WB’s official synopsis)
It’s unexpected to see James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the guys that brought us the hyperviolent, post-slasher mayhem of Saw (2003), leading the charge on an ongoing series of high-spooky, low-gore, haunting movies. The popularity of films like Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013) is a surprise (especially after the team’s first post-Saw movie, Dead Silence , failed to make any impact), but Warner Bros’ reaction to that popularity is not. Like slasher movies, these ghost stories are relatively cheap to make and run on simple, proven formulas. They’re basically money in the bank. But, with Wan working on the latest Fast and Furious blockbuster (Furious 7, 2015) and Whannell working on Insidious 3 (2015), Warner Bros/New Line was going to have to wait until the final quarter of 2015 for an actual Conjuring sequel. A loophole was discovered, though, when someone realized they could make a spin-off film starring Annabelle, the evil haunted doll from The Conjuring’s pre-credit sequence. It sounds pretty cheap – almost cynical – to announce a spin-off of a movie before it is a confirmed moneymaker and to build that spin-off around a sequence that establishes and negates the threat of Annabelle in a mere 10-15 minutes, but there’s also a kind of honesty in such a blatant cash-in. (It was successful, by the way. They made $255 million on a $6 and a half million budget.)
Wan gets a production credit on Annabelle (2014), but has no writing credits on the final film. The script is apparently the work of Gary Dauberman, who wrote the Z-grade, STV creature feature Blood Monkey 2007) and supernatural ‘thriller’ Swamp Devil (2008). Dauberman’s imagination is definitely burdened by the limits of a prequel, but, aside from the title doll and a brief scene from The Conjuring, he isn’t tied to any established characters. The period setting (something carried over from its predecessor, which was set in 1970) even gives the story a trickle of texture missing from other cash-in studio genre flicks and allows Dauberman to undercut the supernatural terror with the real-life horrors of the Manson Family (without the historical reference being a lasting part of the narrative). Unfortunately, the substantial narrative groundwork and likable performances are undone by predictable plot turns, overused scare tactics, and cliché-driven character beats that would be at home in a Lifetime Channel remake of The Amityville Horror (there’s even a scene where the dutiful husband brings home pickles and peanut butter to quench his wife’s wacky pregnancy cravings). This familiarity smothers any sense of a frightening adventure with mundanity, turning a promising start into a pretty boring conclusion.
Director John R. Leonetti has an impressive collection of cinematographer credits under his hat, including work on Wan joints Dead Silence, Death Sentence (2007), both Insidious movies, and The Conjuring, but his work in the actual director’s chair includes only unwanted sequels – Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997 – to be fair, this one was not his fault) and The Butterfly Effect 2 (2006). Leonetti doesn’t seem to have much personality as a filmmaker, but his participation facilitates visual continuity between Annabelle and its parent film, which was probably important to Wan and New Line. His experience as a director of photography definitely gives the film a leg up in the visual department -– especially the sweeping steady-cam shots and expertly-crafted still images. I very much respect the fact that he’s not afraid to linger on the motionless doll in an effort to drive the audience’s anxiety without delivering an actual jump scare. And the first big scare sequence sets the mood fantastically with an extremely confident steady-cam-guided extended take (I didn’t time it, but it felt like a few minutes without a cut) that follows lead actress Annabelle Wallis through the house, out the door, and back into the house, while escaped wackos amble through the peripherals of the frame. As the movie wanders out of its first act, however, the suspense and scares turn sour and convoluted, like a low-gore, low-energy recreation of one of the Final Destination films. The jumps are well-timed, I suppose (it’s really hard to use myself as a gauge for this kind of thing, because I’m so desensitized to it) – including one hackle-raising scene where a shrieking ghost charges Wallis, while changing from a child to an adult in-camera – leaving me to believe that Leonetti could maybe do good things in the future. Provided he has a better script to work from, of course.
According to specs, Annabelle was shot using mostly Arri Alexa digital HD cameras, while some shots utilized Canon EOS and Red Epic cameras (more on that in a second). Leonetti had also used Alexas when he shot The Conjuring for James Wan and the format helps bridge continuity between the films. This Blu-ray is presented in 1080p, 2.40:1 video. Despite the relatively accurate period look, including the appropriate costume and prop colours, Annabelle is a distinctly modern movie in terms of overall appearance. The gradations are smooth, lighting schemes are underwhelming, and colour palette are unnaturally consistent. Details and edges aren’t particularly sharp (backgrounds are particularly diffused), though patterns and the eclectic palette definitely punch up the complexity in the frame. The moody darkness is sometimes overloaded and the softened contrast leaves some sequences muddy and indiscernible. However, a handful of the darkest shots, specifically those involving a lot of rapid movement, are clearly shot using different camera rigs (probably the Canon EOS’). These aren’t only inconsistent in terms of gamma levels and sharpness, but are plagued with unattractive ghosting effects. Generally speaking, however, compression effects are minimal, including only basic digital grain.
Annabelle is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound and is brimming with all the eerie, spooky, ooky haunted noise you’d expect from a Conjuring spin-off. The mix is economical, especially during dialogue-heavy sequences (where the majority of the sound, including environmental ambience, settles in the center speaker) and in the build-up of suspense between more aurally aggressive scares. The coolest additions are the subtle thumps and muffled shouts of an argument in the upstairs apartment that helps to set the aural stage for similarly deadened footsteps crawling throughout the rear and stereo channels. Conjuring composer Joseph Bishara returns to conjure more skin-crawling, string instrument dissonance and LFE-throbbing scare cues. The soundtrack music is used sparingly and augmented by some period-friendly pop music, all of which are richly mixed with directional enhancements that don’t damage the design of the original tracks (i.e. the songs move about the channels without losing the depth of the production).
The Curse of Annabelle (5:30, HD) – A fluffy EPK with cast and crew interviews that briefly delves into the true(ish) story behind the film.
Bloody Tears of Possession (5:30, HD) – A look at the making of the extended-take home invasion I mentioned in the review.
Dolls of the Demon (4:00, HD) – Concerning the doll prop and how it disturbed the cast.
A Demonic Process (5:00, HD) – On designing the film’s briefly glimpsed demon and KNB effects work on the film.
Eight extended/deleted scenes (20:40, HD)
Trailers for other WB/New Line releases
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