Sitting through Annabelle is like watching a doomed relay race where master-sprinter Usain Bolt hands the baton off to Jonah Hill, only for Hill to reenact Schmidt’s blunderous track-meet debacle from 21 Jump Street. In said metaphor, James Wan is Usain Bolt, starting things off with a record-breaking horror affair you may have seen called The Conjuring, and John R. Leonetti is the bumbling Schmidt character, floundering in every attempt to keep this haunted franchise ahead of the pack.
I know what you’re thinking, “How could the director of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation fail so valiantly,” and to that question I have a simple answer – Leonetti only wants to mimic. There’s not a single trace of the established cinematographer’s unique style, as he attempts to recreate James Wan-inspired scares with little success. If you’ve seen the entirety of Wan’s ghoulish catalog, then you’ve already seen Annabelle – just with a lot less palpable tension, atmospheric thrills and actual horror.
But wait, it gets worse! If you’ve seen the trailer for Annabelle, then you’ve already experienced the most horrific segments as well (sans ONE shot), which is the most disrespectful face-slap an audience can endure.
We all remember the Annabelle doll from The Conjuring, right? Said to be one of the Warren’s scarier cases, Leonetti’s prequel introduces us to a happy family expecting their first child. Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are living the perfect suburban dream, until a grisly crime changes their lives forever. After a satanist returns home to murder her parents (John and Mia’s neighbors), the expecting couple find themselves fighting off the satanist and her accomplice until the police kill both invaders, leaving the satanic woman clutching one of Mia’s favorite dolls. Soon after the incident, Mia starts noticing strange occurrences around the house, and she suspects the doll may be the root of all evil. Could the “hauntings” be nothing but post-birth stress, or is the doll haunted by the twisted spirit of a satanist named Annabelle?
It’s a shame that Leonetti doesn’t bother to carve out his own horror legacy, because everything from Insidious to The Conjuring is repurposed with only a few cheap scares in mind. A handful of absolutely paralyzing shots capitalize on the scares that writer Gary Dauberman envisions, and I’m talking an infant-sized handful, but the other 90% of Annabelle can be chalked up to unforgivable ripoffs of Wan’s more iconic material without the master craftsman’s personal touch.
From the “half-demon-face-reveal” jolt in Insidious to The Conjuring‘s brooding vibrations, Leonetti only knows how to create horror through jump-scares and cheap musical jabs. Wan’s ability to manifest horror using monsters and objects planted plainly in sight is unmatched, calling to The Conjuring‘s Gothic-inspired tension, but Leonetti’s inherited style simply can’t achieve the same chills without throwing Annabelle into focus or flashing a demon face abruptly. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it certainly doesn’t spell success when imitated without similar skill-sets.
Despite a few Rosemary’s Baby influences (Mia being named after actress Mia Farrow?) and two stand-out scenes oozing prime nightmare fuel, Annabelle is mostly a period melodrama that plays like a cheesy Leave It To Beaver episode where the Manson family guest stars. Ward Horton’s father figure is as wooden and rigid as they come, and his only job is to leave his wife alone with a malicious demon while strutting around as the family’s breadwinner. Constantly assuring Mia that everything is alright, the number of excuses this optimistic doctor is able to rationalize becomes downright laughable, all spewed through a coy smile that only accentuates his disgustingly squeaky-clean demeanor and slick hairstyle.
Annabelle Wallis isn’t much better, starting with her weird obsession with creepy dolls. Want to know a real dealbreaker, ladies? Obsessing over shelves and shelves of wooden and porcelain dolls that look like spawns of Satan himself. Wallis has a hard time conveying anything more than blood-curdling screams, playing up her Susie Homemaker vibe in true daytime television fashion. Mia is a character petrified of the “Annabelle” doll, yet every time she finds said Devilspawn sitting in yet another random chair, Annabelle is placed on a display shelf in the creepiest of fashions – arms crossed perfectly, back propped-up astutely, and the head always looking dead center. So you’re telling me either the possessive demon hitched to Annabelle has the worst case of OCD in the history of Hell, or that Mia is spending extra time making sure Annabelle looks her utmost horrific at all times? Smile for the camera, Annabelle!
There’s a particular scene featuring Alfre Woodard as a book store owner, where Mia confesses she has a dark secret that’s been eating away inside of her. When she spills the demonic beans, Woodard’s character doesn’t flinch and immediately starts walking to a section in the store, like she’s accustomed to housewives coming in and revealing their haunted predicaments. It’s a momentarily funny scene, but also horrendously out of place. One has to debate whether Annabelle knows how audaciously out-of-touch it is with the horror world, or if Leonetti was actually attempting to construct a comedy buried within the obvious religious themes Annabelle builds itself on.
Filled with runaway sewing machines, malfunctioning elevators and a rocking chair in need of a good blast of WD-40, Annabelle strives so mightily to be a James Wan product, but settles for being a cheaply rendered copycat. John R. Leonetti pulls numerous elements directly from Wan himself while trying to keep Annabelle in line with The Conjuring, which turns this prequel-gone-sour into nothing but an old-school cash grab. Give the props team some credit for making one creepy looking doll, then reflect in sorrow upon the fact that Annabelle can’t turn such a menacing premise into an intoxicating possession story with fresh notes of terror.
Leonetti's prequel is about as lifeless and wooden as the Annabelle doll herself, despite trying to mimic James Wan every step of the way.