Directed by John R. Leonetti. Starring Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard, Eric Ladin, Tony Amendola, Michelle Romano, Brian Howe, Gabriel Bateman, Ward Horton, Shiloh Nelson, Paige Diaz, Morganna May, Camden Singer. Written by Gary Dauberman.
A spookily effective supernatural tale self-destructs during the final act in Annabelle, a follow-up to last year’s The Conjuring that successfully employs many of that film’s hauntingly understated techniques but devolves into unadulterated silliness by the end.
In the previous film, which told the purportedly “true” story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, one of the most unnerving images featured no overt horror elements whatsoever: it was simply the sight of a creepy child’s doll, locked in a glass case in the Warren’s “museum”, with the mere implication that something sinister lurks within.
In Annabelle, we get that doll’s haunted backstory. It was scarier not knowing it.
John Horton and the aptly-named Annabelle Wallis star as John and Mia Gordon, a suburban California couple expecting their first child. When John brings home that freaky-looking doll, the audience chuckles; when Mia places it on her doll shelf next to dozens of other scary toys, it’s a full-on guffaw.
It’s also 1969 SoCal, with stories of the Manson Family lighting up the news. Satanic cults are all the rage, and it just so happens that the family next door is ritually slaughtered one night. The Satanists set their sights on John and Mia next, but are quickly shot by some fast-responding police. But not before one of them – named Annabelle – just happens to scrawl a curse in blood on the wall and die while clutching the doll, bleeding into its eye. The doll can’t just be haunted – no, we need everything explicitly spelled out for us.
Of course, this is the premise of Child’s Play, although anyone expecting the campy humor of the Chucky series will be disappointed. Instead, we have long, lingering shots of not just the doll, but also a sewing machine, a rocking chair, a stovetop jiffy pop, footsteps on the ceiling upstairs, elevator doors, baby carriages, and more – all of which are framed and shot as if something evil is about to happen, although the supernatural occurrences are actually few and far between.
And I gotta say this stuff works: the filmmakers (seem to*) know there’s more terror in the unknown that throwing monsters at in our face, and the longer they build the tension without relieving it in a typical “boo!” moment, the more successful the film is. That basement elevator sequence, in particular, is downright terrifying.
*But then there’s the over-the-top horror movie climax, when story actually kicks in (after 75 minutes of scare tactics) and the film attempts to resolve itself in 20 minutes by explaining everything away. This is handled so poorly – with a supernatural entity actually telling the characters what to do by scribbling messages on the wall – that the film completely lost me. There’s been a cookie-cutter template for this kind of stuff in recent years – see also: Insidious, Sinister, Mama, The Possession, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, etc., etc., which all follow in the footsteps of The Ring – and while Annabelle delivers the scary stuff, the plotting is a mess.
The one unique element here is the haunted doll angle. But that’s such an old trope that it was even memorably deconstructed in an episode of The Simpsons, when Homer desperately tries to get rid of or destroy an evil Krusty doll, but it keeps coming back (in the end, he flips a switch on the back from “evil” to “good”.)
Ah, yes – how do you get rid of an evil inanimate object? Throw it off a cliff, burn it in the fireplace, etc. That’s one of the first things you’d think of when you realize you’re in the possession of an evil doll, but when the doll reappears after John places it in the trash, the couple never again try to rid themselves of it.
All this talk about a possessed object, and no effort is made to actually deal with it in rational terms – no, it’s straight to priests (Tony Amendola) and kind bookstore owners (Alfre Woodard) to explain the what is going on and how to deal with it. These characters wouldn’t have seen that Simpsons episode, of course, but they might have caught Telly Savalas going through the same thing in The Twilight Zone.
Annabelle was written by Gary Dauberman, whose previous credits include Swamp Devil and Bloodmonkey, and directed by John R. Leonetti, of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2 fame (he also shot The Conjuring for director James Wan). The talent involved here doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the final product.
After the previous film did so well (grossing over $300 million worldwide), one wonders why the producers didn’t invest a little more into their franchise. But Annabelle was made fast and cheap (at a $5 million budget, it’s one of the least expensive mainstream releases of the year), and it made $37 million at the US box office last weekend – the same tally as David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Things are looking good for the Conjuring franchise, with a new installment due next October.