Director Leonetti has had a long association with director James Wan of The Conjuring, and Annabelle is a prequel to that hit of 2013. However, from the time the film opens, it’s clear that Leonetti’s inspiration tilts more towards that cult horror of the late 1960s: Rosemary’s Baby.
The fact that the central characters of Annabelle — which is set around the same time as Rosemary’s Baby — are called Mia and John is just the start. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes starred in Roman Polanski’s film. Leonetti’s John is similarly going through an uncertain professional period, while Mia is just settling down into their house while feverishly stitching new items of decoration. Mia is already pregnant at the start of the film but Leonetti’s couple too has overfriendly neighbours, walls that make strange noises, a mysterious cult whose shadow hangs over them and a building basement utility best left alone at night. Plus, everyone seems interested in Mia’s baby.
That’s where the similarity ends. Where Polanski brought out the evil that resides within, Leonetti banks on horror tropes from chairs that rock on their own, cot mobiles that go off on their own, sewing machines that start on their own and, of course, doors that go banging. He does extract quite a few jumps, with Annabelle the doll itself a creepy creation, but only a few are out of the ordinary given that a baby in the picture anyway sets nerves on edge.
A brilliant piece of work is popcorn cooked inside a foil on a pan that inflates and bursts unobserved, a suspected Sophia Loren that flashes by the screen just after Mia imagines seeing an apparition inside the house, and a murder happening in a neighbour’s house seen from Mia’s window.
Even in comparison to The Conjuring — with its fantastic cast of actors and its sub-text of research and years of pain — Annabelle pales. Mia doesn’t have a hair out of place or a stitch unmatched in coordinated ensembles as she experiences, what her priest (Amendola) calls, “some of the worst things a human can face”.
Helmed by a very, very underwhelming Wallis, Annabelle goes on towards extended cliches, repetitive scenes and yawn-inducing dialogues in the second half. None of those cliches is more grating than Woodard in the role of wise old book-keeper Evelyn, who takes Mia into her large, warm embrace. In her Indian-esque loose, embroidered clothes, beads and mysterious looks, she is the character well described as the “magical Black person” of Hollywood films — the one with all the answers without needing to ask the questions.
You wonder though if a conservative, middle-class and proper wife such as Mia would be so open to a woman who, in the 1960s, would have stood on the other side of a deeply divided Pasadena (California).
That’s the least of Annabelle’s problems, of course.
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