The chintzy, cheesy quality of Annabelle suggests the kind of tossed off, direct-to-video cash grab sequel that studios regularly clog Wal-Mart shelves with, capitalizing on what little name recognition whatever modestly successful horror film that is being leeched off of can provide. Think of the endless, forgettable entries in the Wrong Turn and Joy Ride and Cabin Fever franchises, shat out with little grace and care in the hopes of attracting undiscriminating fans drawn to the titles like moths to the flame. Only Annabelle is not a direct-to-video sequel, it’s a spinoff of a blockbuster hit being given a major release, pushed to capitalize on both the Halloween season and the good name last year’s The Conjuring brought to the horror genre. Which makes its sheer laziness as an artless and money-grubbing cash in even more odious to behold.
Say what you will about The Conjuring — and I know it has its detractors — it was a good movie. Maybe not exactly a good horror movie — while certainly creepy, it’s fear factor was overestimated by the more timid out there — but a good movie nonetheless, well acted and stylishly made by director James Wan, with a sturdy classicist structure and ample room to look like a real movie, not the kind of patchily assembled schlock that most modern genre films seem to be presented as; it was the rare 21st century horror film to be treated as an A-list production. With its unknown and barely adequate leads, slumming “respectable” star getting a few days worth of work in a barely conceived supporting role and smeary, ugly digital cinematography, Annabelle is far from that — this is as C-list a production as you can get before you can no longer consider it “professional”.
Annabelle purports to tell the origin story of its titular creepy doll, arguably the breakout star of The Conjuring. The rosy-cheeked blonde with the demonic soul stole her scenes in that film, evoking guttural tension in her few moments on-screen. Given her own vehicle to play around in, she only proves a little of her may have gone a long way. Not that Annabelle gets much to do in Annabelle, as the film itself is more interested in being a cliché, worn out and blatantly derivative assemblage of familiar story beats than in giving Annabelle her own real story.
The movie is so appallingly conventional that it names it’s lead characters Mia and John, practically shouting to the heavens that it wants us to think of Roman Polanski when watching this new mom vs supernatural forces shocker. Here, Mia (Annabelle Walton, giving the most adequate performance in the film) and John (Ward Horton, unbearably bland) move into an apartment building after their suburban home is invaded by the Manson-hippie daughter of her next door neighbors, who have been butchered with John and Mia next. The girl and her satanic boyfriend are shot by police, with the girl bleeding on the Annabelle doll, a new gift to Mia. Cue the fusion of demonic spirits with the girlish totem, following Mia and John to their new apartment, and wreaking ghostly havoc on the sanity of the expectant mother-to-be.
Wan is listed as producer on this project, though his influence seems solely to extend to allowing director John R. Leonetti — the cinematographer on The Conjuring, ‘natch — cannibalize on his best ideas for inspiration. There’s not a scare in Annabelle that isn’t a pale-faced imitation of something from the Wan oeuvre, right down to the snarling basement demon that looks like the one from Insidious, only painted black instead of a shade of Darth Maul. The only difference is that Leonetti lacks the skill or finesse of Wan — not surprising, from a guy who’s biggest previous credit was Mortal Kombat: Annihilation — letting the tension go slack and trudging through the motions of cheap jump scares and flat build-ups. Leonetti is, frankly, not a good director; beyond the fact that he is incapable of generating skills, he’s made an ugly and amateurish-looking film. For a man whose work on The Conjuring was one of it’s bright spots, he surprisingly allows his own film to fall prey to some of the most drab and dreary digital camerawork I have seen in ages, and the film’s set dressing is cheap-bordering-on-incompetent. Whereas The Conjuring had an evocative ‘70s look and feel to it, Annabelle is merely content to evoke the late ’60s by dressing up modern looking homes in a few knick knacks and putting theater school costumes on its actors, an aggravating corner-cutting look that only adds to the cut-rate feel of the production.
The actors aren’t given much to work with, and falter from it. Wallis fares best, acting convincingly terrified (if little else), but Horton is cowed under by the lack of character, reduced to staring intently ahead and flashing a Colgate smile. Alfre Woodard, in the token “name” role, phones in her performance as a stereotypical wise and spiritual older black person, a role that is ultimately, shall we say, racially uncomfortable. (In fact, this movie is weirdly uncomfortable about race, leaving its minority actors as little more than spiritual saviors doomed by their assistance to a nice, white couple.)
To not put too fine a point on it, Annabelle is terrible, a schlocky, cheap and ineffective attempt to ride the coattails of a bigger, better companion movie. Had this been dumped into bargain bins where it belongs, it could be passed over as the forgettable crap it is, but to treat this as a real film, worthy of seeing in theaters? That’s tantamount to fraud right there.
1 out of 5 stars.