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Annabelle | Review

Rosemary’s Scabies: Leonetti Does His Best James Wan Impression

Sure to take its place on future lists of cinematographer’s unfortunate attempts at directing, John R. Leonetti’s Annabelle, a sort-of prequel to a subplot from 2013’s The Conjuring, is technically assured though lacking in anything innately original or insidiously creepy. Basically another bargain basement housewife-in-peril horror film, Gary Dauberman’s script plays like another cheap Rosemary’s Baby knock-off, attempting to prove that a Los Angeles apartment complex is just as spooky as anything you’ll encounter in Manhattan. With no time wasted on comic relief as it takes itself surprisingly seriously (you can forget about all those Marlon Wayans shenanigans with ‘Abigail’ from A Haunted House 2), Leonetti leaves most of the heavy lifting to our own familiarity with the basic material and our lowered expectations with carbon copy.

It’s Southern California in the 1970s and cult mania has overtaken the collective cultural consciousness thanks to Charles Manson and his followers. In Santa Monica, California, a bright young couple, John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are expecting their first baby while John works his way through medical school. Avid churchgoers, they bond with the older couple next door whose daughter, Annabelle, ran off in in the recent past, apparently with a cult. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the daughter murders her parents with the help of another devilish cohort, and accost Mia and John. Though Mia’s stomach is stabbed, the killers are shot by the police. But soon after returning home after such a close call, doomed to bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy, Mia notices something is wrong with one of the dolls in her collection, the doll that Annabelle had been clutching to her chest when she died in their home.

Opening with a statement that informs us that not only have dolls been cherished by children throughout the ages, but they are also objects utilized by sources of evil for their own malignant designs (also, we end with an oh-so-serious quote about evil and vigilance from the esteemed Lorraine Warren), the film seems to imply that dolls are as equal a familiar as, say, creatures of the feline persuasion. But these flourishes are merely an awkward, and intentionally funny pair of statements that highlight Annabelle’s desperate need to seem like an honestly scary endeavor. But hey, it is much better than Leonetti’s other ventures into promising franchise territory, such as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) and The Butterfly Effect 2 (2006).

Perhaps pervading the tone as equally as James Wan is Ira Levin’s classic text, even the characters of John and Mia are rather obvious nods to Rosemary’s Baby stars John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow. Looking something like the blonde sister of Carrie Anne Moss, the only successfully creepy elements in Annabelle are due mostly to the what English actress Annabelle Wallis is able to believably cull from a series of token treacheries she’s faced with throughout this extended liaison with the demon. Chased through her apartment by a young girl that morphs into the adult cult member Annabelle in the blink of an eye or a face-off with a charcoaled demon in the bowels of her apartment building’s storage facilities represent two of the film’s more vivid moments. However, not only fleeting, they also seem directly lifted from James Wan’s other films, like that scary demon in the first Insidious (2010).

The late introduction of an integral character played by Alfred Woodard (looking fantastic) reveals the film’s laziest gimmick during its flaccid finale, especially considering that the why and wherefore of Woodard’s relationship to the troubled Mia is never fleshed out in any regard. “Crazy people do crazy things,” is the repeated explanation for what is going on, why rebellious youngsters join cults and use black magic to assist evil, twisted demons escape from creepy inanimate objects and into human bodies. If only purportedly scary movies could also do scary things with such whimsical nonchalance, then maybe we’d all be satisfied with output like Annabelle.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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