"Demons can sometimes use objects as a conduit to achieve their desired goal."
It's not rare for cinematographers to make the leap to the directing chair, and that move has given us some of the best directors of the last forty years. It's not a sure thing, however, because for every Nicolas Roeg and Barry Sonnenfeld, there's Jan DeBont, Andrzej Bartkowiak, and more recently Wally Pfister. It should come as no surprise, then, that Warner Brothers turned the directing reigns for this prequel to The Conjuring to that film's cinematographer, John R. Leonetti, whose work as a cinematographer has yielded some pretty good films.
As a director, however, he's overseen some total garbage like The Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Could Annabelle be his first step toward proving he's worthy to be considered among the best cameramen-turned-directors, or would it be another crushing disappointment? Read on to find out...
The cold open to last summer's hit film The Conjuring featured a creepy doll known as Annabelle, and her scene served as a fine introduction to the work of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Because everything needs a backstory now, we get to see Annabelle's evil origins, but first we are treated to literally the exact same scene that opened The Conjuring. From there, the film goes back a year to 1970, and an idyllic suburban California town, rife with some creepy shenanigans. John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are expecting their first child, and John presents Mia with a doll she been searching for her entire life. She adds it to her collection, and a home invasion that night finds the doll in the hands of a murderous couple, and when police arrive to dispatch with the criminals, the female invader kills herself while holding the doll.
Mia is ordered to stay bedridden for the duration of her pregnancy after suffering a stab wound during the home invasion, but all manner of mysterious things, including a fire, begin happening in their house. After the birth of their baby, they move to an apartment, but the troubles follow them there as well. A trip to a local bookstore owned by Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) leads Mia to believe that the doll may be the cause of these troubles, and is after the soul of their new baby. The couple turn to their priest (Tony Amendola) for counseling, and after he is attacked by the doll (or a force associate with the doll), he tells the couple that the doll intends to take a soul that very night.
First and foremost, I have to give the film kudos for not being afraid to wholesale rip-off concepts that have been done much better in films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. It's unfortunate, however, that this film is lacking the strong character development from those films, leaving it to feel like a shrill imitation rather than a loving homage. As much as the film is clearly aspiring to those two films I just mentioned, it ends up coming off like a classier, glossier, more upscale version of Child's Play, and as easy as that comparison seems to someone who hasn't even seen the film, the number of parallels between the two is even more glaring once you've seen it. The film is of two minds from minute one, seeking to appeal to the film geeks in the audience by naming the main characters Mia and John -- the first names of the two actors who headlined Rosemary's Baby -- but it ends up being so film illiterate that no one who clues into such a reference will find the film satisfying.
On the other hand, any film that uses popcorn as a plot device knows exactly where its bread is buttered. The overarching problem with Annabelle is that it tries to come off as self-aware, when in actuality it feels workshopped to death in such a way that all of these moments feel like contrivances in retrospect. The film ultimately ends up feeling like a machine manufactured in a lab to dole out cliches without ever understanding the inherent pleasures behind such cliches.
[Minor spoiler alert] Take for example a noble sacrifice executed by a supporting character near the end of the film. It intends to be an homage to Father Karras' noble sacrifice at the end of The Exorcist, but because this character is not given the development that Karras was, it comes off as a cheap attempt to copy that film, rather than an honest to goodness tribute. We shed tears for Father Karras because we know his inner life, and his decision is the culmination of an entire film's worth of character development. Here, however, we roll our eyes because we recognize instantly what they were going for, and how poorly they failed to execute the conceit. [/Minor spoiler alert]
Bearing all of this in mind, it's not easy to fault the performers as they do the best they can with the material they were given. The script's contempt for the characters is a bit alarming, using them as nothing more than a jump-scare delivery system; Mia hears a noise, goes to investigate, gets dragged off by unseen forces, etc. etc. etc. It is a shame to see an Oscar-nominated actress like Alfre Woodard playing a one-note character, and I can't help but hope that she saw something in the character as written that just didn't end up in the film. I will point out, however, that Tony Amendola as the priest has a hell of a career ahead of him in taking on roles that F. Murray Abraham turns down.
Much like The Conjuring, the film feels appropriately spooky, and the cinematography by James Kniest is very good, though I can't help but wonder how much was his doing and how much was Leonetti's. The score by Joseph Bishara, who also scored The Conjuring and both Insidious films, is also good, if a bit reliant on the old startling strings to accompany startling images trick. I'm almost happy to see a film that relies on good old fashioned suspense-building rather than an endless stream of gore masquerading as horror, but it's disheartening to see it done in service of a story that's just frankly garbage.
As a director, Leonetti clearly has learned from the much better directors he's worked with since his last directorial effort eight years ago. What he, and Hollywood in general, need to do, however, is spend more time developing a story worth telling. In the rush to get this film into theaters as quickly as possible, in an attempt to cash in on whatever notoriety they have, makes all of the hard work by the crew feel like it was done in vain. There's a good film somewhere in this director and crew, and especially in that creepy doll, but this just isn't it.
GO Rating 2/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]