John R. Leonetti is no James Wan.
“The Conjuring” is one of the most exciting surprises I've had in recent memory. I didn't expect anything of it when I sat down to see the horror film in a screening room at what used to be the New Line offices on Robertson. It was me and a handful of other people in the room, and for the first time in a long time, I found myself genuinely caught up in a horror film, scared, absorbed in a way that often escapes me. “The Conjuring” is as confident a ghost story as I've seen in recent years, and Wan deserves whatever bump he gets from that film's success.
I can see why “Annabelle” got made. I can hear the meetings in my head where the film was discussed, and it makes logical sense. After all, the opening sequence in “The Conjuring” is one of the scariest things in the movie. It's an effective, efficient scene that lays out the way the haunted artifacts room in the home of the Warrens works, and it establishes Annabelle as an ongoing source of fear. In theory, the idea of a film about that doll and the origins of its haunting sounds like a good idea.
So why doesn't the finished film work?
Leonetti has been the cinematographer on several of Wan's films, including “The Conjuring,” “Insidious,” and “Death Sentence,” and it seems like he'd be a decent potential replacement for Wan in the director's chair. In practice, though, Leonetti doesn't seem to have any particular knack for the staging of suspense or fear, and this ends up being just about exactly as effective as the earlier films he directed, “The Butterfly Effect 2” and “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.”
The most effective sequence in the film comes early on, when Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) survive an attack by a couple of crazed hippies who are right out of the Charlie Manson playbook. They're not just randomly crazy, though, and the effect of their attack is a haunting that targets both Mia and her baby, still unborn at the time of the attack.
For the rest of the movie, the doll Annabelle is treated as a source of terror, but she's not like Chucky where she gets up and runs around and has actual onscreen agency. Instead, Annabelle's war against Mia and John is a war of inches, of tiny creepy victories. In particular, she targets Mia, who is pregnant and worried about what might happen to her and to her impending baby. By the time things finally bubble over, the audience is long since done with caring because of the mundane nature of the scares that seem to mount up. It's a long fuse, and for the most part, it's all a circle. Mia gets creeped out. Things are creepy. John doesn't see it. Rinse. Repeat. Gary Dauberman's script never really makes us invest in John or Mia, which is a major problem. One of the things that “The Conjuring” did so well was it made us invest in the family and in the Warrens as a team. We cared about everyone involved, so whatever happened, there was an investment. That's not the case here, and it's a bummer.
The producers of “The Conjuring” are right to think that they have a major franchise on their hands. The Warrens are fascinating characters, no matter what you believe about them in real life, and there is a room full of objects worth making movies about at the end of that film. How “Annabelle” misses the target is almost worth witnessing, because it's a lesson in how small details make all the difference. There's never any doubt that the doll is bad, and there's never any doubt that Mia and John are in danger, and the result it s that it all feels somewhat done from the moment it starts. I was also troubled by the use of Alfre Woodard as Evelyn, one of Mia's friends. She owns a bookshop that just happens to have material about the occult, and of course the books she has are accurate, and of course she's in touch with the spiritual world more and (spoiler) of course she's the one who doesn't make it through the movie. I don't normally complain about the dynamic of how characters are used in movies as parsed through the prism of race, but considering how white the era of the film is and how white the heroes of the film are, it seems like it is a poorly considered decision at best to have Woodard not only be the one character who knows what's up but also the charter who has to die to save the white folk. It's unfortunate, if not downright badly decided.
It doesn't help that Wallis and Horton are nearly invisible as the leads. Wallis is a very pretty woman, and she certainly looks concerned as she reacts to the various set-ups in her house, but there's nothing urgent about this particular couple in danger. When people bitch about the idea of white being the default setting for storytelling, this would make a great example of where that fails utterly to pay off in anything interesting. I don't care about this couple. The film never gives me any reason to care about this couple. Wallis is pretty, but what do we know about her by the end of this film besides, “She really doesn't like being haunted”?
“Annabelle” will probably do well at the box-office. I have no doubt we'll see more movie spun off from the world suggested by “The Conjuring,” with at least one sequel a sure thing at this point. But if there are going to be more movies about the various objects in that room, they are going to have to be more interesting and less obvious than “Annabelle,” a pretty rough disappointment, all things considered.
“Annabelle” opens in theaters everywhere today.