John R. Leonetti is clearly a nice guy and is well liked by the people he works with. Having worked as director of photography on Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat, his nice attitude meant he was given the director’s chair for its sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. And despite that being a critical flop (but financially successful), he was hired to direct the straight-to-DVD feature, The Butterfly Effect 2, nearly ten years later which was once again a critical failure. Since 2007, Leonetti has been working with James Wan in the camera department for titles like Dead Silence,Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring and has done an admirable job. So, he clearly is a nice guy who people like and he is clearly good at his job. It’s the only explanation available that why a man who has only directed two movies in the last 17 years, both of which commercial flops, was given the job of directing Annabelle, the spin-off/prequel to last year’s horror mega-hit The Conjuring.
So, with a track record like that, what could possibly go wrong?
Annabelle was the real star of The Conjuring, a movie about a demonic possession based on the real-life stories of Ed and Lorraine Warren, and as such was the focal point of a lot of the film’s marketing. Despite only being featured in a handful of scenes, the the creepy-looking Annabelle was what most people took away and remembered about the movie, and rightfully so. The Conjuring was a masterfully directed movie and the scenes with this supposedly possessed doll are handled marvellously to truly terrify an audience. With that in mind, it was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. to capitalise on the doll’s short-lived success.
Set one year before the doll became the possession of the two nurses seen at the start of The Conjuring, Annabelle sees married and expecting couple Mia and John, the former of which is a collector of rare and antique dolls. John surprises Mia by giving her the one doll she’s always been after, the titular Annabelle doll. After their house is invaded by a couple of Satan-worshipping cult members, Mia starts to notice strange things about the doll and when their house is set on fire by mysterious circumstances, they move to a new area. However, Annabelle has seemingly found her way along with them and appears to want the soul of their newborn child.
What helped Wan in The Conjuring is that the stories of Annabelle were based on the real-life experiences of The Warrens, who first encountered the doll (a Raggedy Ann in real-life) in 1970. With Annabelle however, there is no basis in fact and as such, the film often loses its way. With no stories to base Annabelle on, its down to screenwriter Gary Dauberman to invent the origins of the doll and come up with reasons as to why she was possessed in the first place. This becomes a problem with Dauberman’s story is dreary, dull and remarkably unoriginal. What was once a scary entity in The Conjuring is now just a sub-standard non-entity in this stock, seen-it-all-before demonic possession flick. The Conjuring at least felt like it had one foot in reality, Annabelle just feels like wacky, non-nonsensical idiocy and it should come as no surprise that Annabelle is Dauberman’s first feature credit.
What doesn’t help is the utterly mundane direction by Leonetti, which could be described as ‘paint-by-numbers’ if it didn’t feel like an insult to a fun pastime. You would think that a man who has been working on horror films as far back as Child’s Play 3 in 1991 would have an idea of how to create mood, tension and atmosphere, but Leonetti fails miserably to the point where there are more unintentional laughs than scares. Lacklustre jump scares, poorly designed creatures and a horrendous score are just some of the problems Annabelle faces in attempting to terrify its audience. Simply putting a creepy doll on screen with some ominous music is not good enough and Leonetti really should have looked to last year’s Curse of Chucky to see how it should be done. What’s incredible is that the trailer put out by the marketing team is genuinely terrifying and effective, but none of that skill is on show in the finished product.
It’s movies like this that show why The Babadook is one of the best examples of the genre in recent years, everything that Jennifer Kent did right is done wrong by Leonetti here. Annabelle is the product of a first-time writer, an unproven director and a woeful cast and it really shows. It was going to have to try really hard not to feel like a cash-in on the success of The Conjuring, but this lazy excuse for a movie is totally inexcusable. Annabelle isn’t scary and, worse still, it’s a really boring and turgid experience.