Written by: Gary Dauberman
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, and Lulu Wilson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
You don't know the real story.
Producer James Wan resorts to several familiar aspects for Annabelle: Creation, the next entry in what is now being billed "the Conjuring Universe.” Not only is the franchise mascot back, but she’s now being guided to the screen by Wan protégé David F. Sandberg, director of last year’s breakout hit Lights Out. Furthermore, Wan, Sandberg, and Annabelle writer Gary Dauberman have taken Annabelle back to the franchise roots, as it were, couching her in a film that feels so familiar that it might as well be titled The Conjuring 0, which is to both its benefit and its detriment.
One thing is for sure: they’re not messing around with that title. Audiences are literally treated to the doll’s creation at the hands of Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), a toymaker who lives a modest but happy existence with a wife (Miranda Otto) and daughter (Samara Lee) during the 1940s. Tragedy strikes, however, when the daughter is killed in a car accident, leaving the couple despondent. 12 years later, they open their home to six orphan girls and their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), hoping to move on from their grief in the process. Past sins come back to haunt both the Mullins and their wards when the girls begin to witness and experience bizarre, paranormal events, leading to yet another round of demonic encounters.
The approach here seems obvious enough, as Annabelle: Creation is more in line with the two Conjuring films than its predecessor. Recapturing the dynamic of the original seems to be of particular interest: once again, viewers are treated to a house full of girls being terrorized by a malevolent force, and in a rural setting no less. In doing so, Sandberg rightfully leans on all of the franchise flagship’s strengths, specifically atmosphere and character development. Where the first Annabelle prequel quickly tossed a couple of cookie-cutter characters into an auto-piloted, lightweight take on the Wan formula, this one at least makes an effort at rounding out a small handful of characters before subjecting them to the familiar fray.
Specifically, the three most pertinent characters here are Sister Charlotte, Janice (Talitha Bateman), and Linda (Lulu Wilson). The latter two are a pair of orphans who have bounced around from one home to the next and have vowed to stick together no matter what happens. Because Linda is the youngest in the group and Janice is stricken with polio, they’re naturally the outcasts here, effectively left to explore the place on their own and fend for themselves once the house's evil presence begins to exert itself in both the creepy Annabelle doll and other various forms. Bateman and Wilson are terrific, both of them embodying the sort of innocent sweetness necessary for this sort of thing, and, if I’m being honest, these two are at least as memorable as any of the girls in the original Conjuring.
One of them—and you know which one exactly if you’ve seen the trailers—is also given the opportunity to craft an unnerving performance when she comes too close in contact with the demonic force lurking within the home. We’ve seen this possession riff dozens of times at this point—and as recently as last year in The Conjuring 2, even—but this one is a bit more stripped down and not as bombastic as previous takes. There’s a more natural, subdued creepiness to this character’s turn that keeps the film reined in and pitched to a wavelength that resists campy hysterics. Any little wrinkle like that is appreciated at this point, especially since Annabelle: Creation is trying to outrun so much familiarity.
Whether or not it’s completely successful is most certainly up for debate. While Creation does an adequate job establishing the main two girls, it wavers a bit on everyone else, including Sister Charlotte, a character who eventually degenerates into a walking platitude generator. Both Dauberman’s script and the editing here struggle to truly tie in Charlotte, who feels like she should be a more prominent surrogate mother for these girls. Instead, she’s only there to offer some comforting words after the girls encounter something horrific, and then she’s shuttled off until the climax, where she still doesn’t have enough of a presence. Sometimes it feels like she mostly exists just so the script can conjure up an Easter egg pointing towards the next entry in the Conjuring franchise.
Generally speaking, the film struggles to make all of the other characters feel vital, including the Mullins. A lengthy, wonderful prologue frames the film as their story, giving the audience a glimpse of their life before the tragedy that took their daughter from them. So many of these types of films would rush right into the daughter’s death without establishing the character dynamics, but Creation is patient enough, allowing the Mullins’s idyllic existence to linger before cruelling ripping it from them. Unfortunately, they’re nothing more than plot devices from there on out, with Samuel functioning as the gruff, slightly menacing presence warning the girls not to open certain doors or wander into forbidden parts of the house (spoiler: they do).
Esther Mullins remains bed-ridden and largely hidden away for the remainder of the film, prompting the girls to speculate all sorts of grisly details that don’t match up with the truth (nor is the truth nearly as interesting, to be honest). Eventually, one of the girls coaxes all of the necessary exposition out of her that explains what you already know if you’ve seen either this film’s trailer or the previous film. Despite already knowing the particulars, I still would like to have seen the script work in a bit more of a piecemeal revelation that would have the girls slowly uncovering details instead of having the backstory dumped onto them so the film can unleash its climatic barrage of horrors.
Shaky pacing and a longish runtime aside, Annabelle: Creation at least delivers on the franchise’s calling card. Sure, the title seems to indicate that this thing primarily exists to shed further light on the titular doll, but it’s really just another conduit for exquisitely staged supernatural scares. Wan’s brand of horror has done for haunted house movies what Friday the 13th did for slasher movies: it’s no longer a matter of simply experiencing a haunting but rather reveling in what form those hauntings will take with meticulously crafted sequences, each of which feel like mini thrill rides designed to toy with the audience and put them on edge.
Obviously, Wan (and much less Sandberg) can claim to have invented this type of horror (and a nod towards The Changeling here seems to acknowledge as much), but he’s certainly refined it in recent years. Sandberg takes the wheel here and guides the ship with the same sensibilities, as he places an emphasis on establishing that nail-biting suspense with drawn-out long takes that allow the camera linger ominously, coaxing the audience to the edge of their seats. Gradually, the suspense escalates with on-screen action—like Annabelle moving beneath a sheet—before the audience is given a jolt or two.
Granted, it does begin to feel repetitive, but Sandberg at least leans on genuinely disturbing imagery rather than relying solely on cheap jumps and loud stingers. Not only does he mix in some subtle scares here and there, but he also deftly weaves in misdirection by training your eyes to look one way before unleashing the scare from another part of the frame. So much of Creation feels explicitly designed to elicit an audience reaction, whether it has characters obliviously plodding through forbidden rooms or slowly realizing what horrors lurk among them. Between this and Lights Out, it’s clear Sandberg has a knack for playing audiences like a violin and coaxing the sort of “oh shit” reactions that make these films so fun with the right audience.* There’s a terrific gag here involving a stair lift that’s practically devious in the way it prolongs a sequence, allowing for even more scares just when you think it’s about to end.
Sandberg scatters out some more distinctive stuff—like a recurring scarecrow gag and some surprising gore outbursts—to keep Creation afloat despite its familiarity, and it’s perhaps just enough to outrun the sense that we’ve seen this a bit too much lately. While the craftsmanship on display during the scares is impeccable (and very much welcome), these sequences are starting to feel a bit like an artist trying to recapture a greatest hits album without allowing room for growth. That’s where the Conjuring franchise finds itself at this moment: well-versed in playing the hits but perhaps in need of branching out so it can remain vital. Since this film effectively closes the loop on Annabelle, it’ll be nice to give her a rest for a while and allow further entries—which are hinted at before and after the credits in Creation—to take this universe to some different spaces tonally and aesthetically.
Surely, we don’t need to drag Annabelle out of her case again just to learn that the wood she was fashioned from was haunted in the first place. Besides, this would at least send her out on top since it represents quite a turnaround from the previous film: Creation can at least stand among Wan’s two Conjuring outings—but here’s hoping later spin-offs will dare a bit more to stand alone.
*For the record, the right audience is the sort that doesn’t talk and laugh all the way through the movie, making stupid comments throughout while still shrieking at every little jump. Stop treating horror movies as an excuse to act like fools, audiences.
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