Twelve years ago, in the nineteen-forties, there was an American couple who lived out in the middle of nowhere with their daughter who they doted over. The father, Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), was very good with his hands and specialised in woodwork, creating dolls for the local children and his own offspring, but one day on their way back from a family outing their car broke down and while he was fixing the tyre his daughter strayed into the middle of the road and was knocked over, killing her instantly. To get over this tragedy, he and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) have established a home for orphans in their country house, and now, in the fifties, there are new arrivals...
What does this have to do with the doll from the first Annabelle movie, which had the distinction of being one of the most tedious and inert horror villains of all time? Seriously, it just sat there while stuff sort of happened around it, and what kind of thrills can you glean from that, unless you're very easily impressed? The answer to that was damn few, so there was a definite lack of high hopes for this prequel, that in essence was a pre-prequel since Annabelle had been a predecessor to one of those Conjuring efforts which while successful had been a blight on the genre thanks to their mixture of hardline Christian fundamentalism and playing fast and loose with what little truth they had.
Fortunately screenwriter Gary Dauberman (who had a very good 2017, penning this and the Stephen KingIt adaptation) was able to have free rein over what Annabelle got up to here, which meant a shade more imagination and a lot less moralising, always a plus in the chiller format. This wasn't a million miles away from that It movie, featuring as it did a bunch of kids to counteract the evil, though they did have assistance from a grown-up in the shape of Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), a nice nun to presumably salve any objections that this increasingly sprawling franchise had anything against Catholic religious orders. Interestingly, she wasn't that much older than her terrified charges.
Mullins was no help, barely characterised (the usually reliable LaPaglia had nothing to work with), but given to warning the girls away from his deceased daughter's room, which in a plot straight out of the pages of seventies spooktastic girls' comic Misty is awaiting some innocent soul to unleash its evil. The unlucky candidate for this? She was especially unlucky for she was recovering from a bout of polio, Janice (Talitha Eliana Bateman), which meant in an encouraging move we were watching a heroine who was both disabled and female, a combination you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the mainstream. Alas, it was too good to be true as her disability wound up just one more reason to be afraid of the evil come the second half, but for the first this was genuinely unusual in its focus.
Janice has a best pal, Linda (Lulu Wilson), who took over from her when she became incapacitated thanks to a spot of possession once they had gained access to the forbidden bedroom and found the dreaded doll, closed up in a cupboard. Fair enough, Annabelle still didn't do very much, but since unseen hands were placing her in unexpected places (so to speak) she did seem a lot more active this time around, and they even did the "turning the doll's head when you look away and back again" trick that the first instalment let everyone down in not doing. Very much female led, in front of the camera anyway, from villainesses to protagonists and supporting players, this was more proof that women (and girls) could be very well served by horror which gave them more to do than any other genre, and more regularly at that. The main issue was there was little forward momentum, preferring the one damn thing after another construction which was all very well, but since you knew the menace would not be wholly contained, those false endings were an irritant. Music by Benjamin Wallfisch.