Review: Annabelle


AnnabelleA number of films have been inspired by the cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, most notably The Amityville Horror. The most financially successful was 2013's The Conjuring, in which the couple played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga assist the Perron family (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) with the demonic presence troubling their home. That film, which made over $318 million worldwide, is bookended with the tale of another of their cases. In it, the Warrens help a young nurse dealing with the sinister presence inhabiting a doll given to her by her mother. The film closes with a scene set in the basement room where the Warrens keep demonically possessed curiosities, the doll "Annabelle" in her glass case reigning as the most evil and feared. It serves as a perfect introduction for this week's prequel, Annabelle.

I did not expect the studio heads in their mad rush to capitalize on The Conjuring's success to shit all over it, but of course, this is New Line, the company that brought us the Val Kilmer career-killing abortion The Island of Dr Moreau. They cut a $20 million budget to $5 million and replaced venerable Conjuring director James Wan with John R. Leonetti, whose hottest previous credits were Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2. They hired an uncredited script polisher from the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street who clumsily crafted an origin story set on the other side of the country, a script full of anachronisms, with no connection to the original film other than a vague mention of the Warrens as "some couple the church works with back east." And they replaced Farmiga and Wilson with younger lookalikes.

"Low budget" doesn't have to be synonymous with "awful." Many better films have been made on smaller budgets. The general rule for horror sequels, however, is that subsequent films each spend less money and make less at the box office than the hits that spawned them, a cycle that repeats with each entry in a franchise. I'm not sure I've ever seen a follow-up to a film as great as The Conjuring disappoint like Annabelle, at least not until the third or fourth sequel. Even talents like Tony Amendola and Alfre Woodard can't elevate this to more than a bargain-bin DVD buy.

Annabelle would be more aptly named "Annablah." I don't know what is worse, the script or the direction. Characters appear, deliver prophetic drawings, and then are never seen again. The husband is a cardboard cutout, doing nothing to advance the story, which lifts heavily from the Paranormal Activity series. And like Paranormal Activity, Annabelle relies on jump scares for its shock value, but Leonetti is so clumsy as he tries to invoke our primal fears that everything just falls apart.

Early in the movie, the main character, expectant mother Mia (Annabelle Wallis, "Hey, let's be ironic and cast an actress with the same unusual name as the devil-doll title character of the movie, won't that get the audience's attention?") is sewing new clothes for her unborn child. From the first shot of the sewing machine, focused right on the needle and Mia's fingers, you know what's going to happen. But if you had any inkling of a doubt, Leonetti is going to show you that same obvious shot, again, and again, and again ad nauseam until, when the inevitable happens, you're too bored to jump or even really care. This seems to be his one technique, and he uses it again and again through his film. Actions have little consequence, and time after time Annabelle pulls away from anything that would seem to merit its R rating.