Annabelle Director John Leonetti and Oona Chaplin Discuss Their New Horror Movie Lullaby
Jan 18, 2023
Lullaby is a unique kind of horror film, a genuinely scary but allegorically rich movie about parenting, faith, and mental illness. The movie meticulously mines rich minerals of horror out of folklore and ancient Hebrew stories in a way that’s seldom done, drawing on the mythology surrounding Lilith, the ‘first woman,’ to generate great unease. As a Jewish woman and her converted husband try to adjust to their new baby, they find themselves haunted by a demonic matriarch who was legendarily spurned by God at the beginning of time.
Lullaby is written by Alex Greenfield and Ben Powell, and directed by John R. Leonetti, who horror fans might recognize for not only his excellent cinematography in James Wan films (Insidious and its sequel, The Conjuring, Death Sentence, Dead Silence), but also his own directorial output (Annabelle, Wish Upon, The Silence). Leonetti has a lengthy history as a director of photography, creating indelible images in films like Jim Carrey’s The Mask, Hot Shots! Part Deux, Mortal Kombat, and Piranha 3D, and he retains his great eye in Lullaby. At the film’s center are Rachel (Oona Chaplin) and John (Ramon Rodriguez), who are either losing their minds or actually losing their child Eli to the terrifying Lilith. Leonetti and Chaplin spoke with MovieWeb about Lullaby and its rich array of themes.
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Oona Chaplin on the Dangers of Lullaby’s Quick Fix
Lullaby begins with an introductory montage, a clever bit of audiovisual exposition which subtly introduces the lore and the threat at hand — Rachel’s sister, Vivian, is seemingly attempting to protect her own baby from Lilith, before the child is taken and Vivian is institutionalized. From there, the film follows the very relatable Rachel and John as they grapple with the surfeit stressors of a newborn child. Lullaby is very smart and compassionate in its depiction of Rachel, a mother who obviously loves her child but is endlessly frustrated, and whose career and life outside Eli have been essentially stopped. She doubts herself as a mother, and it’s almost through the cracks of that doubt where Lilith can enter her life.
Rachel finds a nursery lullaby in an old Hebraic book which, after being translated, calms Eli down enough to actually stop crying. But as she sings this lullaby, literal cracks begin to form in the mirrors of the house, portending Lilith’s demonic intrusion. It’s the easy way out of the lullaby which allows for supernatural forces to take hold. “She thinks she’s found an easy fix for her problems,” said Chaplin, “or what she perceives to be her problem. She thinks that her crying baby is a problem, and so she finds this quick fix that seems to work, but because of the quick fix, a whole world of problems opens up, and they’re very real. And I feel like that’s, for me, just a good lesson in life. Whether it’s motherhood or going into work and doing quick fixes and things that seem too good to be true are probably not.”
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“You have to be careful what kind of things you invite into your life,” continued Chaplin, “because you don’t know what they come accompanied by […] Also, realizing that a crying baby isn’t actually a problem. The problem is when somebody comes and takes a baby. And so, Lullaby is putting parenting into perspective where it’s saying, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be hard, but this is also what we are literally here to do, a lot of us, and is how we’ve come this far as a human race.’ So maybe it’s not for everybody to have children, and thank God for that, but that’s how the human race continues.”
John Leonetti on Taking Lilith from Folklore and Into Lullaby
“Taking a baby away from their parents is terrifying, no matter who you are or however you think about it,” said Leonetti. “I think what’s really interesting, though, is the character of Lilith, the depth of that character, and that woman being the first woman, supposedly. Her being banned to the wolves and not being able to have her own baby, and the retribution, the wrath, and the drive that this creates, it’s a paradox, because it’s the power of love that creates the evil. And that dynamic threads all the way through the movie.”
Lilith is a fascinating figure in the Talmud, Midrash, and other Jewish literature, and the way she is brought to life is one of the best aspects of Lullaby. Originally the first woman and partner to Adam (brought up from the same dust), Lilith saw herself as an equal to Adam and refused to be subservient to him. As a result, God banished Lilith to the wilderness outside Eden, where Lilith, deprived of love and motherhood, began procreating the wolves and birthing the demons which haunt humanity. “You would do anything to get your baby, and go to any lengths,” explained Leonetti. In this way, Lilith is a complicated, almost sympathetic antagonist. Her deprivation and compulsion toward motherhood is said to be embedded throughout humanity.
“She is, in essence, beautiful. Every mother’s so beautiful,” continued Leonetti. “In the story, the lullaby itself that Lilith sends to these mothers was really a song that Adam sings to her with love. Even he, as well as God, banned her to the wolves because she was too strong of a woman, and it creates this relentlessness for Lilith to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to be able to have that anyway,’ so she takes babies. […] Motherhood, in the beginning, is the most precious thing, and it’s the scariest thing for new parents. The moment that little baby is in your arms, you know you’re hooked for life. It’s just the way it is. I think that the power of Lilith projects from the beginning of time, if you will. It’s latent in Rachel, and it’s very relatable, and it carries through her and her sister.”
Chaplin Says Lullaby Explores Motherhood in a Different Way
There have been a handful of excellent horror films about motherhood, from Rosemary’s Baby to Bryan Bertino’s The Monster and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Lullaby fits nicely in their company, and not just for the attention to detail paid to the mythical ‘first woman’ and eternally childless Lilith. Rachel is a fully three-dimensional mother, and the film portrays all the fears, tenderness, annoyance, intensity, and even monotony of motherhood. “For Rachel at this point, like just having a poop is a challenge,” said Chaplin. “The truth of the matter is that she can’t even poop way that is normal. So she has to make peace with this new person that she’s become. I think, weirdly, Lilith gives her the opportunity to do that in a really weird, twisted way.”
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Chaplin (Game of Thrones, The Hour, the upcoming Avatar sequels) has a pretty iconic family tree of mothers and fathers (Charlie Chaplin, Eugene O’Neil, Geraldine Chaplin), though she isn’t a mother herself. “I’m a godmother eight times, and I don’t have any children of my own yet, but I love children,” said Chaplin. “I think that I’ve just seen moms and been around moms, I’ve lived with moms for three years now in a land share, and I just I admire moms so much. Just making a meal, just keeping children fed is a huge accomplishment. It’s such an amazing task. And so very, very small things come very meaningful. It was interesting to explore that from a place that is different to mine, because I think Rachel has the career and the mentality that I don’t necessarily have, like I really enjoy motherhood as an archetype, as an energy.”
Leonetti Talks Typecasting in Horror After Annabelle
Unlike Chaplin, Leonetti has become known for his work in the horror genre; he’s able to navigate the supernatural (and the human interest in it) with ease. “I think that the connection between what’s on this side of the curtain and what’s on the other side of the curtain is that nobody really knows what’s there. That’s what creates all religions, all good, all evil, and all the fabrication of that in our minds. That’s how it all conjures,” said Leonetti, who has spent years figuring out how to visually explore such an abstract concept.
It’s not what he always wants to do, though. “It’s a result of the success of Annabelle, it really is,” explained Leonetti. “I love making thrillers, creating suspense, so anything that goes into. I’m a little bummed, honestly, that you get locked into it, you get labeled in this, because I’m more than capable of delving into [other genres]. I mean, I could even do a romantic comedy, if you really want to know the truth. I just love working with actors and creating characters, and getting under the audience’s skin and hopefully into their hearts and their soul.”
Lullaby certainly gets under your skin, and if it’s the last horror film Leonetti directs, it’s quite the finale. An Envision Media Arts and Heroes and Villains Entertainment production presented by Alcon Entertainment, Vertical Entertainment is releasing Lullaby on December 16, 2022 in select theaters and On Demand.
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