Annabelle: Creation is a fun, spooky late-summer surprise, a majorly creepy improvement over the lackluster original.
Retro is surely in style these days, particularly for horror movies. Director James Wan’s spooky 70’s set haunted house hit The Conjuring was a big critical and financial success in 2013, turning the tides of the genre’s direction. With the well finally drying up on Paranormal Activity and the found footage gimmick, Wan has led a wave of horror hits built upon late 20th century nostalgia, favoring practical effects and tension over digital blood and guts. Most importantly, quite a portion of these films are really good, made by filmmakers with actual talent and vision who are effective at recreating the type of scares that are fondly remembered. (It Follows, Oculus, The Witch, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Wan’s Conjuring sequel).
Annabelle: Creation, the prequel-sequel to the spinoff of Wan’s budding horror franchise (take a breath) about the creepy possessed doll locked away in Ed and Lorraine Warren’s room of haunted souvenirs, is the latest impressive addition to this collection. After a thoroughly lackluster and borderline unwelcome first film, director David F. Sandberg was hired to make things right. Though technically not a part of this new crop of throwback horror, last year’s sleeper hit Lights Out showed that Sandberg possessed the same necessary skills needed to add to it. In the same way last year’s Ouija sequel added Oculus’ Mike Flanagan, the hiring of a truly ambitious and more than competent director leads to almost unseen marketed improvement from sequel to sequel, as Annabelle: Creation is a frightening, frequently disturbing blast.
Pushing the Conjuring universe timeline even further into the eerie past, Annabelle: Creation opens somewhere in the late 1930’s to mid 1940’s, when doll maker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther (Anthony LaPaglia and Lord of the Rings’ Miranda Otto) lose their young daughter in a tragic accident. Jumping twelve years later into the 1950’s, Samuel and the bed-ridden Esther have opened their secluded country-home doors to Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and six orphaned little girls. The girls, two older teenagers, two younger teenagers and two girls somewhere under 10 years old, are good and wholesome kids (most of the time) who are just happy to have this big empty home to explore. Their enchantment turns to discomfort, however, as strange things start to occur around the house. In particular, polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman) is put through the ringer, terrorized and thrown around the house like a demon’s rag doll after she discovers the Annabelle doll in the deceased daughter’s forbidden room.
Even though this is all allegedly based on a true story, there are a few pieces of plot in Creation that are really hard to justify for a viewer looking for clean storytelling. For example, no matter how desperate the Church is to find these girls a new home, was there really NO vetting process to determine whether or not a houseful of orphans should be living in this house? The whole place screams red flag even disregarding the supernatural, with the faint bell from Ms. Mullins’ mysterious bedroom doing enough to creep out the girls. Beyond this, there are two or three major plot holes (too spoilery to discuss here) that Gary Dauberman’s script requires you to swallow in order to buy into the peril of these girls.
Once you do that, however, Sandberg’s raw talent takes over, delivering a ton of expertly staged horror scenarios to inflict upon these poor younglings. As he showed in Lights Out, the director possesses the staging, timing, and visual aesthetics necessary to follow in the footsteps of a James Wan. Most importantly, he has a keen understanding of escalating the violence and scares without sacrificing the atmosphere built in the beginning of the film. While the actual Annabelle doll is certainly creepy-looking, there’s only so much you can do with her appearance before audiences demand another source of fright. Creation embeds the horror throughout the house, and it’s really fun to see the director set up his dominos before knocking them down.
The movie doesn’t even try to hide where the evil chaos is going to be coming from farther down the road; there’s no mystery as to why we’re spending so much time in the first act watching Janice ride the automated handicap machine up and down the stairs, Mr. Mullins fix that pesky abandoned elevator shaft in Sister Charlotte’s room, and oldest girl Nancy (Phillipa Coulthard) flirt with a startling scarecrow in the barn. We know these pieces are being set up at our unsettling expense, and Sandberg’s execution and ability to shoot these scenes are key in the difference between having a good time or not.
Since I criticized Dauberman’s script earlier, this seems like an appropriate time to give him some credit for dodging the unlikable character trappings that doom a lot of horror films, as pretty much all of the main characters in Creation are worth rooting for. Bateman and young Lulu Wilson develop a touching and really sweet bond, as Wilson’s Linda bravely acts as a loyal sister to Janice even during some tough and frightening moments for both of them. Wilson really impressed in Ouija: Origin of Evil in her turn as the possessed little girl, and she shows a new youthfully heroic dimension here, as Bateman gets to steal the show as both the weakest and eventually strongest of the victims. The two young actresses, both under 16 years old, act circles around everyone else in the film, especially the shaky performers playing the older girls. The movie also does a good job not to demonize (pun intended) the Mullins for exposing these innocent orphans to mortal danger, giving them a legitimate and sympathetic reason for taking them into their home.
I usually have a thick skin with horror films, as I’ve become numb to jump-scare-a-phobia and rarely get shaken by what Hollywood horror can throw at me. But there’s appreciated care given to Annabelle: Creation, along with two or three moments that genuinely surprised and disturbed me. That’s more than enough for a horror film recommendation these days, as horror audiences are typically not that discerning to begin with. This new retro trend at hand is encouraging because these are genuinely good, skillful films that also deliver the jumps and bumps that audiences want. Annabelle: Creation is scary fun and cares enough to be solid at its core, making it more than acceptable to stand under the ghostly umbrella that The Conjuring created.