All of us Fellow Fans are aware that, like pretty much anything else, if there’s a successful horror flick (read: it made money), there are going to be a slew of other studios (and likely, the same studio) that are going to want to hitch their wagon to that star and ride the revenue-generating wheels off of it. The Exorcist makes a bundle, and even gets some Oscar nominations? All of a sudden we have flicks like Beyond The Door and Abby making the rounds. Halloween and Friday the 13th pack theaters? Well, now Distributor X across the street is offering Don’t Go In The Woods, Chopping Mall, and Mountaintop Motel Massacre. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I personally have really liked quite a few of these “knock-offs” and number some of them among my favorites; I’m sure a lot of you have as well. Admittedly though, when a movie is a totally blatant, shameless imitation of a popular film that’s an obvious grab for some o’ those popular dollars, I tend to get a little pissed off at the lack of originality and lazy greed of some studios…but this begs a peculiar question: Where is that line drawn? How do we determine when to say “ok, this flick is a lot like [insert popular horror film here], but it’s done well, and most importantly, it’s spooky!” …as opposed to declaring “this is total, unimaginative bullshit!”?
Annabelle is a recent film directed by John R. Leonetti that, as you all know, is a prequel to the immensely popular James Wan film The Conjuring from last year. Out of the box, it seems a quick money-grab, taking a small but frightening element from that previous hit film and throwing a story up around it…but you never really know until you see it, right?
We open being treated to the same opening scene from The Conjuring, with two nurses who are roomates relating their story of the haunted doll, Annabelle, to Ed and Lorraine Warren. With a bit of new dialogue, the film flashes us back to the previous year (presumably 1970), when a young couple, Mia and John, are at church with their neighbors, the Higginses.
The pair are expecting their first child, and Mia, as it still happened a lot at that time, is a homemaker. John is finishing up medical school, and in his stress makes some bone-headed statements to his wife, upsetting her; to assuage this, he gives her a gift of an antique doll in a white gown, apparently the last of a set that completes her collection. Shortly thereafter, Mia is awakened in the night by a scream from next door; John goes to investigate, but a pair of assailants (who have already murdered the unfortunate Higginses) corner Mia in their home, wounding her just before John returns. The police arrive in time to shoot the male intruder, and find that the woman has committed suicide in the nursery, having slit her own throat while holding the doll that had so recently been a present. Mia and her unborn child survive this encounter, but strange events in the house prompt the couple to move after their daughter, Leah, is born. This isn’t the end of the terror, though, as more and more sinister visions and happenings occur to Mia, and they all seem to center around the now much more malefic-looking doll. Is the doll haunted? Does it all have something to do with the Manson-like cult that the two home invaders had belonged to? Finding John to be a skeptic, Mia turns to a new friend, bookstore-owner Evelyn, for advice and support…but can the wise older woman’s knowledge save the mother and child from the hunger of a force summoned from the darkest of abysses?
I have to say that the film treads heavily on what has gone before; the direction and lighting are virtually identical to other recent high-end films. The connections to The Conjuring are painfully obvious, both literally and thematically; the camera-work and lighting are very similar, as well as the suspenseful set-ups; you’ll see a damn near shot-for-shot revisit of one particular scary moment from Insidious…all of this lends credence to the accusation made by many that this film has nothing original in it, that everything about it completely relies on something you’ve already seen in another, likely better film…by and large, that’s true. I even spotted a pretty obvious continuity error that shows post-production was in a bit of a hurry to get the film into theaters…
…but that said, damn it, the movie is entertaining. Not only did I find the majority of the performances very well-done (a particular shout-out here to the ironically named Annabelle Wallis as Mia), but the cinematography and suspense were better-than-serviceable. True, the shooting was very reminiscent of other flicks (Leonetti was the director of photography on both the Insidious films AND The Conjuring) but it still works. The plot has holes, a lot of aspects are somewhat incoherent, and some of the character’s decisions border on complete idiocy…but it still works. As a bonus, in what I perceive as a nod to some of us older horror-philes, besides the mentioned (and obviously expected) links to The Conjuring, connections to another film of a demonic bent are pretty visible as well: Rosemary’s Baby.
The apartment building, certain visuals, the era and names of the characters (Mia and John; Mia Farrow played Rosemary and John Cassavetes was her husband) all point to an obvious homage to the 1968 classic.
There are some nice set-pieces that will have you on the edge of your seat. I found the movie relies a bit too heavily on jump scares, but I’m not one of those people that bitches about that too much; sure, if a jump scare is all ya got, you’ve got a crappy film, but if you work them in with a suspense-driven narrative, then go for it! Ironically, the very nature of the scares in this film seems to be what puts people off; the same stuff that scared them in The Conjuring is “contrived and unoriginal” in this film. Well, fine; if you look at it from that perspective, then that statement is true…but if Leonetti and crew had gone in some totally different direction with it, then the same people would have griped that it had no connection to it’s source…as it is with our chosen genre, Fellow Fans, not only can you not please everyone all of the time, it’s often impossible to please some people any time. The only real gripe I had is that we see too much at times…which would be different from the source film, no?
I had a fun time with it, folks. To offer an answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this review, I guess we call an imitative film a piece o’ shit when it has no redeeming value beyond just being a cash-in; when it takes a familiar road but still entertains, we call it pretty decent.
For me, Annabelle entertained. Does this mean I consider it a landmark? Don’t be silly; it is, by and large, a second-tier production capitalizing on the success of the juggernaut that spawned it. It suffers somewhat for that lack of creativity, but at the same time, how can it be part of the same story and yet not be similar? As many others have said, there’s not a lot to see here you haven’t seen before…however, there’s not a lot of pies I haven’t had before, either…
…and I still like me some pie.
That’s my two.
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