After the huge success of The Conjuring, which partly featured a possessed doll named Annabelle, it was pretty much inevitable we’d be getting some sort of sequel or spin-off. An official sequel is already on the way but before then the prequel has landed; depicting the terrifying story of the doll’s past.

Taking place a year before the doll appears in The Conjuring, we follow a young married couple who have just moved into a new house in the suburbs and are expecting their first baby. Shortly after moving in, they become the victims of a horrific home invasion by a couple of satanic cultists. Thereafter they start to experience supernatural disturbances that are linked to the doll; a gift the husband bought for his wife.

I’m sorry to say that fans of The Conjuring will be severally let down by this; the film just isn’t scary enough. Apart from one or two moments that show spooky promise for the talent of director John R. Leonetti (producer James Wan’s cinematographer on both The Conjuring and the Insidious movies) there’s nothing much going on here beyond cheap jump scare tactics and endless close-ups of Annabelle’s perpetually staring face; it’s all just failed attempts to compete with the scares of its doll-linked horror cousin. The only truly scary thing about it is just how lacklustre the terror is. Even the score by Joseph Bishara (also of The Conjuring and Insidious) isn’t enough to make hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

The Conjuring also had the added bonus of starring first-class actors such as Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston and Lily Taylor. Unfortunately this dramatic weight is lacking in the prequel’s cast. The performances of Ward Horton and (the coincidentally named) Annabelle Wallis aren’t bad – they portray the loving couple increasingly terrified by strange bumps in the night pretty convincingly – but they’re just very forgettable, saddled by bland characters that are as clichéd as they are uninteresting. We aren’t given any compelling reasons to care about the protagonists, and that’s a big issue when the central plot depends on whether or not they’re going to survive.

The clichés bleed through from the characters and the attempts at scares to the plot itself. Although the idea of the doll may be an inherently ludicrous one, this was just one of the many puzzle pieces that made up the brilliant The Conjuring. Here, it just doesn’t result in the same magic when focusing the entire plot around her. Things tip over the edge with the introduction of a priest (played by Tony Amendola) that spouts demon mumbo-jumbo that’s as silly as it is frustratingly generic, putting it more in the box with, for example, the lacklustre The Last Exorcism Part II than scary classic The Exorcist. It’s a real issue when the audience are snickering at moments which are supposed to have them cowering behind their fingers. Its incessant po-faced approach to its premise and scares ironically just makes it all the less effective as a horror movie.

The hope with any spin-off is that it can shine a fresh light on a story with which we’re familiar, adding new perspective to the mythology and generally make its own distinctive mark while at the same time tying into what we already know. Unfortunately Annabelle doesn’t do any of that. While it’s not the worst film of the year, it’s nevertheless nothing more than a cynical and pointless cash-in on an already successful entity.

This review was previously published on Scotcampus.