ANNABELLE Movie Review – A Surfeit of Shocks and Scares, a Shortage of Everything Else
Pre-feminist patriarchy is alive and well in Annabelle, the rushed-into-production prequel/spin-off to last year’s mega-sized, supernatural horror hit, The Conjuring. Retro gender roles (and stereotypes) were also at the center of James Wan’s effective exercise in old-school horror and old-school horror tropes. However, Wan is a superior stylist, if not quite an auteur-level filmmaker, who elevated the purported based-on-a-true-story material at the center of The Conjuring, sidestepping The Conjuring’s more troubling implications about gender roles, gender stereotypes and their centrality to the horror that befall the film’s family. Busy with the Fast & Furious franchise, Wan handed off directing duties to his longtime cinematographer, John R. Leonetti. Leonetti goes a long way toward imitating Wan’s visual style and grab bag of shocks and scares, but Gary Dauberman’s unoriginal, derivative screenplay (Dauberman reportedly wrote the first draft in 12 days – it shows in ever loose plot threads and narrative cheats), hamstrings Leonetti at every turn.
When we meet the couple at the center of Annabelle, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), they’re happily ensconced in traditional gender roles. She’s a housewife and expectant mother-to-be. He’s a recent medical school grad beginning his residency. They live on a quiet, sun-dappled residential street with friendly church-going neighbors and a relative sense of safety and calm. Signs of Nixonian-era fears and anxieties, however, present themselves bluntly via grainy, black-and-white television footage of the Manson murders. The murders are enough to convince Mia to suggest locking their front door when they’re away from the house. John initially scoffs at the suggestion, but eventually agrees. The locked door proves to be an insufficient barrier to a home invasion that leaves two of their neighbors dead and Mia stabbed and injured, forced into permanent bed-rest until she delivers her baby.
Despite the title, Annabelle, a creepy-looking, porcelain doll acquired by John for his wife’s ever-expanding doll collection, plays a minor, almost tangential role at first. She’s not the ghost- or demon-haunted doll we encountered at the beginning and the end of The Conjuring. She’s just a creepy-looking porcelain doll. Post-home invasion splatterfest, however, it becomes clear that Annabelle is a conduit of some kind, either for the ghosts of the recently dead home invaders or – given what we later learn about their motivations and background – for a soul-snatching demon who bears a striking resemblance, maybe more, with the demon haunting the central characters in Wan’s other supernatural horror franchise, Insidious. Leonetti slowly (maybe too slowly) ramps up the tension and suspense, using Mia’s stifling isolation and deepening mental and emotional discomfort as fodder for the usual haunted house tricks (e.g., recalcitrant appliances, disappearing/re-appearing objects, etc.) until a literal conflagration threatens her life and her baby’s.
Annabelle shifts gears and locations – from the suburbs to the big city – after Mia gives birth, sending the film into a different, if again, familiar direction with Mia’s daylong isolation (even with her infant nearby) the central focal point for the shocks, scares, and surprises that follow. Borrowing liberally from Rosemary’s Baby and with the re-introduction of a background player, Father Perez (Tony Amendola), a Catholic priest, into the proceedings, The Exorcist, Annabelle turns into a greatest hits version of a supernatural horror film. It’s not the obvious borrowing, however, that’s really Annabelle’s problem: It’s in the set-up of a potentially devastating decision/climax minus an adequate, satisfying payoff centered on a late-arriving neighbor and occult bookstore owner, Evelyn (Alfre Woodard). Evelyn has a tragic backstory of her own that once revealed, makes for a predictable resolution, but it also feels contrived and cheap (because it’s both). Evelyn’s actions move her into Magical Negro, something it’s hard to believe Leonetti, Dauberman, or Wan (as a producer) wanted. Just because they might not have intended, however, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
For all of its problematic themes and subtext, Annabelle does deliver its fair share of consistently effective scares, almost all of them refreshingly free of gore and blood (early home invasion aside, that is). The decision, whether Leonetti’s or Wan’s not to make Annabelle into an ambulatory doll like the evil doll in the Chucky series is just as refreshing. We never see her turn her head or move, but she appears and disappears as she did in The Conjuring’s opening/closing segments. Keeping her movements offscreen adds to the uncertainty and, at least initially, ambiguity key to Annabelle’s effectiveness as a horror film. Horror filmmakers can certainly learn something from the “less is more” approach Wan and Leonetti have taken in The Conjuring and now Annabelle. Whether they heed that advice, however, is another matter altogether.