July 8, 2016
Warner Bros was quick to capitalise on the success of James Wan's The Conjuring with this slight and formulaic spin-off, focusing upon the cursed doll that featured in the prologue to Wan's film. On a financial level it was certainly a canny move, with Annabelle grossing a quite astonishing US$256m worldwide. On a creative level it is a fairly empty and dull experience. The biggest problem with Annabelle is that it spends 95 minutes telling a story that essentially took The Conjuring all of three. A lesser, but significant, problem is that for a horror film it seems to pull an awful lot of emotional punches.
The film is directed by John R. Leonetti, a cinematographer whose work includes several of James Wan's recent films, including The Conjuring. It is odd, therefore, that Annabelle feels like such a visually underwhelming effort. There is no original imagery or horror here at all. Everything feels liberally stolen from other, more effective horror films. The whole movie feels flat and lifeless. Sure there are enough loud noises to make most viewers jump in their seat once or twice, but there is a lot more to a good horror movie that being startled. Annabelle really falls down at the starting line.
It also falls down because it commits the cardinal sin of explaining the origins of its villain. The Annabelle doll was effective in The Conjuring because it was evil and creepy with no explanation. This spin-off kicks off with giving the cursed doll a specific and clear origin, and that immediately makes it a much less frightening film. The largest element of horror is a fear of the unknown. If you make your horror elements known, there is nowhere near as much for the audience to fear.
One of the things that has made James Wan's horror films so effective is their casting of talented dramatic actors: Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson in Insidious, Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring and so on. Annabelle does not benefit from such distinguished leads. Neither Annabelle Wallis nor Ward Horton are particularly bad actors, but neither of them are too interesting either. It feels as if they deliver what is on the screenplay page, and nothing more.
While Annabelle does benefit from the presence of the very talented Alfre Woodard, she is given a terrible cliche to perform: the wise, spiritual black woman who can assist the white protagonist in fighting evil. When it comes to the film's climax it is Woodard's character who makes the critical sacrifice in order to preserve the white couple and their baby. There are multiple chances for the film to take a much darker and more provocative route, but instead it falls back upon well-worn and uncomfortable cliches. There are two moments during the climax when it seems as if the film finally is taking a bold, horrific step: it jumps back in a fake-out both times.
This is a weak, very ordinary film, and to be honest that is not a great surprise. There is a law of diminishing returns to these things, and expanding a quick, creepy sequence from one film into a full-length and drawn-out feature of its own is always going to stretch a concept very thin.