Film Review: “Annabelle” fails to live up to hype without James Wan

Official poster for "Annabelle"

Official poster for “Annabelle”

By Matt Goodman |

“Annabelle” is perhaps the most anticipated horror film of this Halloween season. Starring an extremely unsettling doll, some relatively unknown actors and a full-fledged demon, it lumbers on at an awkward pace that desperately needed more help from the past decade’s best horror director.

James Wan created something truly special with his blend of horror films that have dominated the genre charts for the past decade. Unfortunately for “Annabelle,” the prequel to Wan’s extremely successful film “The Conjuring,” Wan’s absence from the director’s chair derails much of the mystique.

“Annabelle” takes place a few years before “The Conjuring.” A couple played by Annabelle (yes, really) Wallis and Ward Horton is getting ready to have a baby. They are attacked by members of a cult who are quickly killed by police. The blood of one of the cult members spills onto a doll named Annabelle, possessing the toy without the couple’s knowledge.

After being stabbed, Wallis’ character, Mia, survives and has the baby with no issues. Trying to avoid the memory of the attack, the couple throws away the doll and moves into an apartment. Though it was thrown out, the doll finds its way back into their lives along with an assortment of haunted house spooks that Wan perfected in his past few films.

Instead of Wan, John R. Leonetti took on his third directorial role in film following “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” (1997) and “The Butterfly Effect 2” (2006). Leonetti worked as a cinematographer in most of his past notable works. He worked alongside Wan in box office successes “Insidious” and “The Conjuring.” These films have incredibly fluid, tense cinematography and camera direction. The angles are truly terrifying.

Ironically, the most intense parts of “Annabelle” are cut short by curiously awkward camera movements, weird lighting and confusing angles and cuts. Some start great, featuring the same tense, practical jolts present in “The Conjuring,” but nothing ruins an experience like an awkward camera movement that instantly reminds you that this is nothing more than a movie, with nothing to really be scared of.

The doll and a demon.

The doll and a demon.

A similar shot from "Insidious."

A similar shot from “Insidious.”

Many of the scenes could have been more effective if audiences hadn’t seen the exact same sequences in other Wan productions.

The terrifying scenes in Wan’s “Insidious” where a demon face appears from behind an actor, and the scene where the demon chases its victims while climbing on the walls and ceilings are reused with much less effect in “Annabelle.”

Worse yet, the first image and scene in “Annabelle” are the exact same as the first image and scene in “The Conjuring.” It was like the Transformer movies reusing the same footage from other films, but trying to be scary.

There were two particularly terrifying scenes in the movie. One takes place in a storage chamber at the apartment complex. Going into the scene, I was dumbfounded by the cliché, horror movie stupid decision that Wallis makes.

No character had gone into the storage chamber the entire movie. Creepy stuff had just started happening in the apartment. It had started storming. The baby had fallen sleep. So what does the lead character do? Take off down the elevator into the storage facility, leaving the baby alone in the apartment with a lightning storm and a demon-possessed doll.

Needless to say, I had low expectations going into the scene where the fact that something bad was going to happen was blatantly obvious. Luckily, the filmmakers brought their A-game for a few minutes in this dark creepy room.

The silhouette of a large horned demon comes out of nowhere. As Wallis takes off to the elevator, I felt my pulse rise to its highest extent in the entire movie. The elevator starts to make noises like it’s going up, but when the doors open up, she’s still in the storage room and the silhouette is still in the back of the room.

An intense scene from "Annabelle."

An intense scene from “Annabelle.”

Having held my breath for a few minutes at this point, I was wondering when the intensity would break, or whether it would continue to be a nonstop, white knuckle ride like “The Conjuring” turned out to be. Unfortunately, the attempt at keeping the tension going faltered when Wallis makes a break for the stairs, being chased by a demon that actually wasn’t that scary when revealed. The tension was further destroyed by the shaking B-movie camera work and a ridiculous amount of strobe lighting.

The other frightening scene that had potential, an attack by a satanic cult that turns into a wild, bloody, splattering mess, would be extremely intense if it wasn’t in every commercial and trailer that the company put out. It will undoubtedly get the film to make a large sum of money, but it completely lost all of its shock value when the entire scene appeared on the internet months before the film came out.

Alfre Woodard as Evelyn, left, and Annabelle Wallis as Mia, left.

Alfre Woodard as Evelyn, left, and Annabelle Wallis as Mia, left.

The actors didn’t aid Leonetti in his directorial debut either. Wallis’ performance aims to be brave and independent, but when she breaks down and starts screaming and crying, it’s hard to believe when the next shot is her completely focused, heading into yet another haunted room.

Alfre Woodard, the most well-known member of the cast, finds her solid role written out awkwardly when she literally jumps out of a window, and the movie, in the less-than-believable climax.

“Annabelle” did a good job of marketing by making $15.5 million on its first day of release, but failed to live up to the high expectations of its trailer, and will likely not make as much in the long run as “The Conjuring.” Despite its problems, the marketing and success of “The Conjuring” will help “Annabelle” be extremely successful, especially considering it only cost $5 million to make, as compared to $20 million it cost to make “The Conjuring.”

I give Annabelle 2/5. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare “Annabelle” to “The Conjuring” with its disparity between cast, budget and crew, but what can they expect when they reuse the same premise, explanation and even footage from other more effectively frightening films?

Can we, as audience members, expect it to be more than a money-making scheme when a successful company creates a film spin-off based off literally nothing but a prop? Probably not.



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