At what point does a successful formula stop being successful? That's the question begged by Annabelle, the fourth film from what for the purposes of this review we'll call "The Wan-iverse", a string of loosely tied together supernatural films directed or produced by James Wan of Saw fame.
This time around we learn the origins of the creepy doll, Annabelle; which can be seen briefly in The Conjuring locked in a creepy box with a warning not to open it under any circumstances. This film takes place in the 1960's, and centers around a young pregnant couple trying to live with the trauma of being attacked by Manson family proxies, a horrific act that we see in the opening sequences of the movie. As one of the cult members dies, she clutches a creepy doll the husband had given the wife as a gift, and so begins a series of spooky vignettes all caused by the titular doll.
Let's cut to the chase here. Insidious is a downright scary film. The Conjuring is also scary in its own right, even though it was already beginning to feel like well worn territory when it was released last year. Insidious 2? Well, let's not talk about that one. Annabelle hits many of the same notes as those films. Even though Wan didn't direct - this time around the helm is taken by Wan's cinematographer John R. Leonetti - his signature style is ever present. It's because of that style, that the immense mainstream success of movies like these should come as no surprise. They all deftly combine primal religious fears, shot selection inspired by the best 70's spook films, and ingenious jump scares that startle you without making you feel like you've been abused. It's a potent combination that has kept the Wan-iverse at the top of the box office since 2009.
And viewed in a vacuum, Annabelle can easily be considered a well made horror film that packs some legitimate scares. The issue some horror fans may have however, is it's now the third time in a row we've viewed the same exact formula played out in almost the same exact way. Being truly scared of these films also requires, in my opinion, a certain religious belief that not every horror fan is going to share. If you're not truly scared of you or a loved one being possessed? Then all three of these movies may leave a little to be desired. Let's also not forget that they have served to give great notoriety to Ed and Lorraine Warren, dubious figures in the "paranormal community" with a long history of questionable supernatural research.
If you can separate Annabelle from its predecessors and its wider cultural significance, it's a serviceable Halloween time scare-fest that packs more potent jump scares than most movies of its ilk. Viewed with a broader lens however, it's hard to ignore the fact that a few months from now it's going to feel indistinguishable not just from the other Wan-iverse films, but also from the plethora of posession-obsessed movies of the last five years.