Annabelle director John R. Leonetti has two previous big screen directorial credits to his name: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2, which I guess makes him a perfect choice to make a lacklustre and tossed off follow up to a surprisingly successful movie. In this case, Annabelle, a ludicrously minded film about a possessed doll, comes spun off from a plot point at the beginning of The Conjuring. No one involved in the casting or filming of that film returns here, except for Leonetti, who served as the director of photography (which he also was for the first Mortal Kombat, but I digress).
To his credit, it’s easily the best of Leonetti’s minimal efforts as a director, and the fact that Annabelle stinks most likely isn’t his fault. It’s already a cheap, rush job of a prequel that can’t make its main hook interesting. It comes with a script so terrible and lazy that I imagine it all came together something like this:
A Warner Brothers executive sees the box office gross of The Conjuring, slides a picture of the Annabelle doll across the table to his fellow businessmen and women, taps on it, and says “THIS. You have three weeks.”
Three weeks later a harried screenwriter (in this case, frequent indie horror scribe Gary Dauberman) turns in a draft that get’s leafed through quickly.
“Yeah, this’ll do,” the executive states without actually reading it beyond a few key beats.
“Do we need to rewrite it at all? This is only a first draft,” the writer retorts.
“Nah, it’s fine.”
Then when the cast, crew, and director finally get a look at what they’re up against, they just make an agreement that they’re working on a pretty stupid movie that will barely spook pre-teens and just agree to try and make Annabelle look as good as possible so they all get decent work in the future. That sort of “let’s at least try to put on a show” mentality doesn’t make the material any better or less frustrating to sit though, but it’s nice to see that people are trying even when the story and concept isn’t doing anyone any favours.
If you’ve seen the beginning of The Conjuring or even the first five minutes of Annabelle, you already know where the story is ultimately headed. It certainly doesn’t work in this film’s favour to immediately remind people of a far better film right out of the gate. This story takes place a year before The Conjuring begins as a young married couple (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) are expecting a child to complete their happy domestic life in 1960s Santa Monica, California. After a nasty home invasion on them perpetrated by a crazed satanic cult looking to make a sacrifice in order to conjure up a demon, the baby is okay, but the house has somehow become haunted. They move to an apartment in Pasadena, but the presence has still followed them.
Obviously the creepy ass doll in the wife’s collection is somehow behind it because one of the cult members bled on it and transferred some sort of evil energy into it, but for the most part, the Annabelle doll gets forgotten about for a decent chunk of the film. It initially sets things up as a Child’s Play knock-off where whatever is inside the doll will want to get out and swap souls with a member of this family. Then it turns out that it really just wants to take a soul to hell with it. But there’s also this other bigger, random demon that’s hanging around. So Annabelle really isn’t the biggest terror in her own movie. She also can’t move, her eyes barely change, and the one moment where the doll ostensibly does any actual damage not caused by the other demon takes place almost entirely off screen. Even the question of why someone would own such a hideous looking doll in the first place (outside of it being an apparent collector’s item) never gets brought up as an obvious joke.
None of the film’s jump scares work. Whenever something ghostly creeps around in the background of a shot, it’s so poorly telegraphed that they never come as a surprise. Every possession movie cliché that could be trotted out makes an appearance – from the fearful mother worried about her pregnancy to the priest that finally gets a look at true demonic evil to the aloof investigating police officer – but none of them are updated to feel anything more that stock means to stock ends. Again, it’s not really the fault of Leonetti or the cast who has to try in vain to sell the material, but because everyone’s simply working with basement level material. It’s so devoid of anything approaching wit, scares, or fun, it feels like being trapped in a haunted house with all the lights turned on that has been made entirely out of knickknacks from the dollar store that someone gave up putting together halfway through.
For what it’s worth, Leonetti clearly knows what he’s up against and decides to at least make some parts of the film visually interesting. There are some nice shots of a church told from inside a confessional, a niftily staged murder scene shown through an open window with a gently wafting curtain, and lots of great looking close-ups of the various electronic gadgets that will miraculously turn themselves on and off at various points of the movie because the script told them to. Even then, there are some distinct miscues, like how the film’s digitally photographed sheen makes for a pretty unconvincing period piece that in its worst moments feel more like a fan-made film for YouTube than a Hollywood production.
Worst of all, the only thing that can really be felt about Annabelle is near complete apathy. It’s certainly living up to genre expectations in the laziest of possible ways. It’s a film that they should hand out bingo cards at the door for so people can check off everything that happens in hopes of winning a prize. That’s the only way this thing can be spiced up at all. At least some of the people involved are clearly making an effort, but really, who cares?