ANNABELLE Review: All Dolled Up But Nowhere To Go
It was a tale of good news/bad news in advance of the release of Annabelle this weekend. The good news was that the film is a prequel (of sorts) to The Conjuring, 2013’s terrific horror phenomenon that earned $137MM at the domestic box office, good enough for 19th place – ahead of such flashy titles as The Wolverine, Lone Survivor, and The Wolf of Wall Street. The bad news was that the film was being helmed by John R. Leonetti, whose usual role has been that of cinematographer to director James Wan, the man behind The Conjuring. Sure, Wan’s DP moving directly behind the camera SOUNDS like good news, but after this year’s Transcendence, a terrible film helmed by a great director’s (Christopher Nolan) usual DP (Wally Pfister), I wasn’t feeling confident about anyone else looking to join the Career Change Class of 2014.
In the film, John and Mia Gordon (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) are a young couple in the late 1960s who are on the verge of taking their lives to a new level. John is a rising star at the hospital where he is a doctor, and Mia is pregnant with their first child. But terror invades small-town America when the long-lost daughter of the Gordons’ neighbors returns, having fallen under the influence of a satanic cult. The neighbors are murdered by their own daughter, and John and Mia nearly suffer the same fate.
They move into a new apartment and have a healthy baby girl, but something is wrong. Before the neighbors’ daughter died, the demon that possessed her left her body and possessed the Annabelle doll that John had given Mia as a gift. When the doll comes to the new apartment, so too does the demon, who is looking for a soul. The young couple turns to a pair of experts for help: their priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola); and their neighbor, Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), who owns a bookstore specializing in the occult.
It’s fitting that a horror movie would make my worst fears come true. As was the case with the directed-by-a-former-cinematographer Transcendence, the directed-by-a-former-cinematographer Annabelle is not a good film. It’s unfortunate, because it arrives with an excellent pedigree and incredible potential.
The Annabelle doll, while not integral to the main plot of The Conjuring, is something of a supporting star late in that film. It’s also the one thing from that film that makes the most sense to spin-off. (Frankly, you could probably build an anthology TV series based on all the items in the Warrens’ home.) And as dolls go, Annabelle is sufficiently creepy as it sits on the shelf or in a child’s rocking chair. Unfortunately, a creepy doll just sitting around does not a 98-minute movie make.
After a clever re-use of some of the opening interview footage from The Conjuring, this film proceeds with a long and slow set-up. Leonetti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman take far too much time getting to the doll, instead focusing on introducing the neighbors, the priest, and the crazy daughter, as well as offering background on Charles Manson and cults (via a news report), what doctors thought they knew about prenatal care in the late 1960s, and tours of the Gordons’ house and apartment.
Yes, during this time the doll becomes … well, not quite possessed. The doll is merely a vessel for evil, it’s not evil itself, so no matter how creepy it looks, it only ever sits there. Things happen all around it, but it never does anything itself; it doesn’t even have a pull string to say something scary. This is inexcusable. The doll is the movie. It doesn’t need the degree of animation that Chucky from the Child’s Play films has, but it could at least turn its head.
Once the demonic frights start, the film does nothing to build any sustained suspense. Scary moments occur (some work, some don’t), but those are immediately followed by more overlong sequences of people talking. There are moments when horror films need to do this to give the audience a breather; this film is mostly breathers.
Even the music isn’t sustained. The filmmakers showcase “Cherish” by The Association (on a fabulous K-Tel vinyl album) as a song the demon kicks off on the turntable while Mia is eating dinner alone in the next room. It’s a haunting romantic tune, and the melody – particularly the opening strains – played in the context of terror, is quite effective … until Mia takes the needle off the record and the song is never heard again. Maddening.
Wrapping it up, the film’s ending is simply awful. This is the greatest disappointment, because about five minutes before the ending, a staggeringly frightening moment happens – a moment so soaked in realism that it doesn’t just cut deep, it drills deep. It was even supported by what suddenly became clear was a set-up line from the priest. My heart had room to sink because my stomach was between my knees. THAT is where the film should have ended. Sadly, Hollywood isn’t South Korea.
I suppose the worst thing a horror film can be is un-scary, and Annabelle is not that; it has its frightening moments. But because those scares – and even the attempts at scares that don’t always work – are so few and far between, the film winds up being the second-worst thing a horror film can be: boring.