There’s something stirring beneath the surface of Annabelle and that something is inspiration. The spinoff of last year’s excellent The Conjuring is inspired not only by true events, but also by horror classics like Child’s Play, The Omen, and specifically Rosemary’s Baby. At some points, director John R. Leonetti seems to intentionally mimic various shots from those movies. But while watching Annabelle, not one bit of it feels appreciative of its inspirations. It’s as if the producers took those movies and removed the heart, which is, after all, what drives home the power of horror. When all else is stripped away, what remains is Annabelle, a bland and mediocre horror movie that, to its disadvantage, happens to be a spinoff of one of the better horror movies in recent years.
If you recall the events of James Wan’s 2013 hit, then the events of Annabelle won’t be unfamiliar. The film actually opens with the same scene that opened The Conjuring in which three young people are being interviewed by Ed and Lorraine Warren about their experiences with the Annabelle doll. Subtract one year and it’s 1967. John and Mia Form are a young couple expecting their first child. One night, the two awaken to loud sounds coming from next door. What follows is a home invasion, a good many minutes in length, in which two intruders (believers in Charles Manson’s cause) try to murder them. One of the intruders happens to take a liking to a doll that John had just purchased for Mia as a gift. After the woman is shot and killed by the police while holding the doll, things begin to get a little on the strange side in the Form household. Chairs start a rockin’. TV signal turns to static. And most of all, this couple begin to suspect something fishy about their new doll.
Look, Annabelle could easily be written off as an unnecessary sequel, prequel, spin-off, or whatever you want to call it. Even the posters have to include “Before The Conjuring there was” as if we forgot or simply didn’t know that this is related to James Wan’s film. But let me make a case for the movie, even though I didn’t like it. I was very disturbed by the doll in The Conjuring. And even though I didn’t expect it have its own movie (and I didn’t necessarily ask for it either), when the news broke that it was being made I thought, “Okay. Cool.” It could work. Bring James Wan back to direct and let’s have a fright fest. It didn’t work that way. Wan serves a producer, but it just isn’t the same. Something has been lost in the process. Maybe it’s that the doll would be better as a supporting character, like in the first film. It was creepy and effective. Think Hannibal Lecter. What’s his most memorable movie? The Silence of the Lambs. Lecter, a disturbingly psychotic yet brutally intelligent cannibalistic killer, only had sixteen minutes of screen time, but Sir Anthony Hopkins took the role and made something out of it. The others in the series focused more on him and lost a bit of the oomph. Even the NBC series Hannibal (one of television’s absolute best right now) puts Lecter on the sidelines a bit and focuses on Will Graham. So maybe Annabelle’s inability to hold the main role is the issue with this film. Or maybe it’s because it remains on the surface.
It never taps into what’s brimming beneath, if anything is even there. It feels hollow from start to finish, not a character worth caring for and not an event worth pondering for longer than a few seconds. The scenes that do hearken back to movies like Rosemary’s Baby (the rolling stroller) never really hold their ground and feel like lazy nods to casual viewers who may have seen that particular image on a poster or while flipping through channels. Truthfully, I’d be willing to bet that they made so many visual references to that film because of the recent Rosemary’s Baby miniseries on NBC. Whatever the case, it never feels as self-knowledgeable as it should. Something that isn’t brimming beneath but instead looming above this movie is the weight of The Conjuring. I’m not one to compare horror movies (or movies of any genre for that matter) except in cases like this. You can’t watch Annabelle and not compare it to The Conjuring. Especially when the marketing team does its best to remind you that they’re related. And this one comes up way short.
The characters are even a step down. It was about forty-five minutes into the film when I remembered that the movie opened with the interview with Ed and Lorraine Warren (portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in Wan’s film last year) and I began to hope that they would make an appearance sometime in the running time. They didn’t. Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis (there’s no way she got this role for any reason other than having that first name) are okay in their roles and there really isn’t anything negative I can say about them as performers, but it’s what’s on paper that leaves it lacking. They just aren’t very interesting main characters and the actors just don’t bring anything to enhance the script. I’ll admit that I somewhat enjoyed Tony Amendola as the typical priest character that is essential in these movies and Alfre Woodard was pretty good in her role of Evelyn, which plays a crucial role in the awful and ridiculously stupid ending. And how about that ending? I didn’t buy it one bit. It was such a ridiculous decision on Evelyn’s part that I just can’t accept it. I feel like it would never happen that way.
All that being said, I cannot end this review without mentioning the fact that the movie isn’t all bad. Really, it isn’t. The home invasion scene that I mentioned earlier was actually well acted and filmed in a tense fashion. I liked it quite a bit. Also, there is a remarkably and effectively scary scene in the basement of an apartment complex when Mia sees an evil figure, gets on the elevator, and it refuses to ascend. It’s tight, tense, darkly lit, and very frightening. Maybe James Wan had a hand in that scene alone. Apart from those two scenes, it just doesn’t hit. Doors slam shut on their own, lights flicker, and the doll rocks a chair all by itself. It’s all the same stuff we’ve already seen and don’t care to see again. Don’t think about talking dolls holding knives. This doll doesn’t talk, blink, or walk, and that does make it far less interesting than Chucky. And let’s be honest, that’s the character that’s in the back of our minds when thinking about Annabelle.
Annabelle (2014) 99 mins Rated R for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror Starring Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard Written by Gary Douberman Directed by John R. Leonetti