Written by: Gary Dauberman
Directed by: John R. Leonetti
Starring: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I like your doll..."
“Before The Conjuring, there was Annabelle,” the marketing insists, an ominous pronouncement that couldn’t be less true in terms of the films themselves. A more honest diagnosis would admit “without The Conjuring, there would be no Annabelle,” as, despite only briefly featuring in the prologue of James Wan’s film, the devil-doll has become something of a mascot for this burgeoning franchise, which will continue in earnest with a sequel next year. For now, however, it takes a step backwards in more ways than one with the release of this quickly-produced prequel whose connection with The Conjuring is so tenuous that one wonders if the studio didn’t dust off a pre-existing script and recast it in the franchise mold.
Specifically, it feels like the umpteenth Rosemary’s Baby riff was lying around somewhere: Annabelle Wallis and Wade Horton are Mia and John Gordon (so named as to actively invite comparison to Polanski’s film), a haplessly milquetoast couple expecting their first child on the eve of the 70s. With the Manson Family murders grabbing headlines, the two find themselves in an increasingly hostile world (well, relatively speaking, of course—less fortunate minorities of the era would simply be welcoming them to the club), a notion that hits home when their neighbors are savagely murdered next door by an estranged daughter named Annabelle. Swift police intervention cuts the carnage short when the intruders are gunned down in the Gordons’ home, but it soon becomes clear that the entire episode has been part of a cult ritual, as Annabelle passes her spirit onto one of Mia’s dolls and proceeds to terrorize the couple even after they move to Pasadena.
As if their namesakes weren’t enough confirmation, Mia and John find themselves in an apartment eerily reminiscent of the Woodhouse abode. Annabelle is mysteriously in tow, of course, yet this isn’t quite a killer doll movie, per se, but rather another damn bout with Satan and his demonic minions. All told, Annabelle herself spends most of the film exuding a static menace, as the doll only acts as a conduit for the dead cultist’s spirit. Occasionally, she’ll creepily rock in a chair or subtly change positions, but Chucky she ain’t (though she does have exactly one good bit where she comes to life). Truthfully, she could easily be excised from the film without much of a fuss since most of the hauntings are of the demonic and ghastly sort, which I suppose makes for clever misdirection but is ultimately disappointing considering how abundant these films have been recently.
The result is a diet version of James Wan’s signature brand of horror, as frequent collaborator John R. Leonetti struggles to recapture the intensity and atmosphere of The Conjuring. Despite relying on the same techniques as Wan—including a high-strung score from Joseph Bishara and some sporadically creepy, subtle imagery—Leonetti’s effort never quite escalates beyond its desire to make audiences jump through cheap scares. Whereas Wan’s films often burrow themselves into your consciousness on a primal level, Annabelle is merely a cheaply-constructed fun house in comparison, full of predictable chair-jumpers and assorted, increasingly bombastic spookiness. For a while, it’s just effective enough to keep the movie afloat, but the effect wears thin before the the silly, overwrought climax even arrives. Somewhat compelling notions, such as the presence of a couple of ghastly, precognizant children, flit in and out without much rhyme or reason, leaving viewers to wallow through some all-too familiar scraps reheated rather blandly.
Bland is the order of the day here, from the altogether flat cinematography to the wholly forgettable cast. Wallis and Horton’s defining traits are their utter whiteness and lack of complexity. Annabelle might be a homage to Rosemary’s Baby, but it features none of its nuance or psychology; some cursory dialogue hints that Mia may be suffering from postpartum, but this angle is never developed or seriously considered. Instead, the ever-reliable power of Christ is invoked once again when the film actually decides to take a page out of The Exorcist playbook because it has so few of its own.
Not that The Conjuring itself was wholly inventive, of course, but it was at least skillfully-executed familiarity; Annabelle feels like an obligatory follow-up designed to keep the franchise afloat, a hastily-made decision that only has me a bit exhausted by it already. What was a cool entry point into the cinematic world of Ed and Lorraine Warren already feels overexposed and trite (the fact that A Haunted House 2 already parodied it doesn’t help, I suppose). Sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dolls lie, if only for a little bit, especially when The Conjuring has the potential to be the rare franchise that can reinvent itself with each Warren case file. How disappointing, then, that Annabelle is just more of the same with only a fraction of the effectiveness.
Among the biggest disappointments is the utter disposability of its period setting. Situated in the tumultuous 60s, Annabelle simply reduces the era’s turmoil to white folks being bummed about having to lock their doors. “It’s a different world now” in light of the Manson murders and the growing presence of occult activity, according to one on-the-nose bit of dialogue at least. And yet, the world looks all too familiar, with women and minorities being pushed to the background, once again diminished to plot devices despite the Civil Rights movement and sexual revolution unfolding during this time. Mia isn’t treated as a person as much as she is another terrified avatar, while a kindly (and, conveniently, spiritually-attuned) book dealer (Alfre Woodward) is a rather absurd instance of the magical Negro trope. A better film would explore their horrors in allegorical fashion, but Annabelle has no such concerns. It only aspires to remind you that it’s the B-team version of The Conjuring, which will properly return next year--here's hoping this is simply a misstep in the meanwhile. Rent it!
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