“Annabelle” is set to horrify audiences in theaters this weekend. Think you can’t be creeped out by a doll that never moves? Don’t be so sure.
“Just having her around set was kind of bizarre,” the film’s director John Leonetti told TheWrap. “She’s really creepy. She just sits in a chair and you get creeped out.”
The film serves as the prequel to the horror smash hit, “The Conjuring,” following the origin story of Annabelle, the sinister doll and fan favorite from the James Wan original.
“The way the doll was designed [by Wan], it immediately gets into your psyche,” New Line president of production Richard Brener, went on to explain, adding: “People have an irrational fear of them.”
While Annabelle may haunt your nightmares, you’re not alone. She haunted the production as well.
“When we were scouting the apartment, which hadn’t been occupied for 15 years, we went to look at the night light coming through the windows,” recalled Leonetti. “There just happened to be a full moon and we looked up and there were three smudges coming straight down on the glass,” he said eerily. “Our demon has three fingers. I have the photo.”
Leonetti cites “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Exorcist” as major influences on the film. He stressed that even though, yes, we’re talking about a possessed doll, there had to be a sense of realism.
“We made a conscious decision that this was not a ‘Chucky’ movie,” said Leonetti. “You never see her move on her own. She ends up in different places and you don’t know how she got there.”
And of course, there’s never talk of horror without bringing up the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. While the second and third act of the film are very much in the vein of “Conjuring,” the first act builds tension with precision, for which Leonetti turned to Francois Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock for inspiration.
“There’s a patience in suspense. I wanted to let it develop slowly … it’s a slow burn,” explained the veteran cinematographer, who served as director of photography for Wan on films like “Insidious” and “Conjuring.”
In approaching Leonetti as his first choice for the prequel, Brener noted that New Line, also known as the “House that Freddy Built” in reference to the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise, is trying to get back to its roots with the horror genre, especially since budget isn’t the determining factor for quality. “Toby [Emmerich] and I have been more drawn to the classic horror rather than the torture porn,” explained Brener.
The first draft of the script was penned by Gary Dauberman in 12 days. The shoot didn’t last much longer, coming in at 25. The $5 million budget didn’t provide ample room for special effects, but Leonetti dug into his cinematographer’s tool kit to create visual cues to show the doll’s arc from angelic to demonic.
“Being a cinematographer you have to be very visual,” said Leonetti. “What that allows me to do is understand how to tell a story with lighting and a camera to set a mood, which obviously is really important in horror, maybe more so than in other genres.
“She starts creamy and porcelain-faced,” he explained of Annabelle’s transformation as the film encompasses the nostalgic look of the 1970s. “Then the first thing I would do is change her eyes — she has different sets of eyes for different times in the movie.”
Leonetti noted that you might see him lurking around theaters in Los Angeles this weekend, watching how audiences react. While he sees himself moving into the thriller genre, he wouldn’t rule out a return to horror.
“Would I do another horror movie? Absolutely if I can make horror films like this,” he vowed. “Whatever I do next, I want it to be classy and commercial. ‘Annabelle’ is those things.”
“Annabelle” hits theaters on Friday, Oct. 3.