When ‘The Conjuring’ unexpectedly made over $300 million worldwide last summer, everyone at Warner Brothers clearly got together, munched on cigars, and said, “We gotta make this a franchise, see!” ‘Annabelle’ is their attempt to do exactly that. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t very good.
Annabelle is of course that creepy doll that those real-life con artists and fiction film heroes the Warrens kept in their office in ‘The Conjuring‘. Now, the little doll stars in her own movie. (Think of the merchandising opportunities!) It’s a pretty tenuous connection to base a franchise around, but it’s cheaper than continuing to pay Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson to play 1970s psychic ghostbusters, so it happened. The film stars Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton as a completely bland couple who look like Ken and Barbie dolls and have about the same amount of personality. Speaking of dolls, Wallis loves ’em! So Horton buys her a giant one named Annabelle. Even though it’s creepy from the start, she accepts. Then the couple get mysteriously attacked by two members of a Manson family-style cult and some of the blood from the crime leaks onto Annabelle, cursing the doll forever. Flash forward a few months and the couple are living in the Pasadena equivalent of the apartment from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Even though they tried to throw out that pesky cursed doll, it returns and soon starts haunting Wallis and her baby with ferocity. A priest (Tony Amendola) and a kindly bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard) who knows an awful lot about demons are called in to help, but will they and does anyone even care?
As a ‘Conjuring’ sequel, the movie is a pretty slapdash affair that desperately tries to infuse a prop from the first movie with a back story. The script is a hodgepodge of ideas desperately trying to set up some ‘Conjuring’-style scares. With James Wan off making ‘Fast & Furious 7’, his cinematographer John R. Leonetti (who previously directed ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’ and really should have been banned from directing forever as a result) was put in charge. Leonetti can stage a suspense sequence in Wan’s style competently, but absolutely cannot pace a story to save his life. Any scene at any time could be a long boring bit of exposition or a jump scare, and not in a fun deliberately unpredictable way. Nope, it more suggests no one involved quite knew what story they were telling.
Admittedly, there are two decent scare scenes in the movie that deliver the jumps ‘The Conjuring’ offered in seemingly endless doses. The first involves the cult family attack and it’s genuinely unnerving (if in bad taste given how uncomfortably close it comes to the Sharon Tate murder, pregnancy and all). The second is the introduction to the demonic threat in expertly constructed bit of shadow play in a basement.
The rest of the flick is flat-out stolen from other movies, or at least imitates them closely enough to feel like plagiarism. The big spooky villain (beyond Annabelle) is taken pretty much directly from ‘Insidious’ (which Leonetti shot), the setting from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and most egregiously the single scare that got the biggest reaction at the screening I attended was taken outright from Mario Bava’s final film ‘Shock’. Toss in universally horrible acting and a screenplay that creeks along when it should fly, and you’ve got a pretty rough ride. ‘The Conjuring’ might have been corny and clichéd, but at least Wan knew how to dream up fresh scares and executed them relentlessly. That film was almost exhausting in its endless barrage of set-pieces. ‘Annabelle’, on the other hand, is exhausting in its over familiarity and pointlessness. Some scenes might work and the movie might look good, but it’s a tiresome bore for anyone who has seen more than two horror movies before.
What’s most frustrating is just how blatantly the filmmakers have tried to turn the film into a franchise launcher and how hard the studio is pushing the doll as a new horror icon through marketing. Sadly, it’s possible to manufacture franchise success regardless of the movie’s actual quality and they might have done it off the back of ‘The Conjuring’. Let’s just hope ‘Annabelle’ goes away quickly. When the filmmakers are already spinning their wheels struggling to make an origin story work, you really don’t want to see how low they’ll sink for a sequel. Now that’s scary.