Annabelle: Creation *** / *****
Directed by: David F. Sandberg.
Written by: Gary Dauberman.
Starring: Anthony LaPaglia (Samuel Mullins), Talitha Bateman (Janice), Stephanie Sigman (Sister Charlotte), Miranda Otto (Esther Mullins), Lulu Wilson (Linda), Grace Fulton (Carol), Philippa Coulthard (Nancy), Tayler Buck (Kate), Lou Safran (Tierney), Samara Lee (Bee Mullins), Mark Bramhall (Father Massey).
It’s become a standard trick in genre films over the years – when you run out of ideas of sequels, go back and tell the origin story that no one needed or asked for. That way, you can at least keep the lucrative franchise churning, for at least one more film. That’s kind of what happened here in Annabelle: Creation – the film is a prequel to 2014’s Annabelle, which itself was a spinoff/prequel to James Wan’s The Conjuring – one of the best mainstream American horror films of the decade. The original Annabelle was a middle of the road horror film – not great like The Conjuring was, but not horrible either. And best of all for the studio – it made money. But, there was a problem – that story took the title character – a creepy, inanimate doll – right up to the point where the protagonists of The Conjuring, Ed and Lorraine Warren, have the doll under lock and key – preventing it from having further evil adventures. So even if it kind of, sort of looked like they explained the origins of the evil in the doll in the original Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation reveals that wasn’t quite the case, and tells the origin story of that doll, and how that lead into Annabelle. By all reasons of logic, this movie therefore shouldn’t work at all – and yet, it does. It is magnificently creepy and atmospheric, and fits in well with the themes of the entire series up to this point. It is better than the original Annabelle – even if it doesn’t reach the level of either Conjuring film. It is, basically, as good as this movie could reasonably be expected to be.
The film takes place in the 1950s – and opens with what seems like a wholesome, mid-Western family – the Mullins. The father (Anthony LaPaglia) makes dolls – and we see him making Annabelle in the opening scene – and along with his wife (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Bee (Samara Lee) – they seem to be the personification of the ideal 1950s nuclear family. And then Bee gets hit by a car and dies. 12 years later (I’m just realizing now, that in order for the time line to fit with what we know, the main action of the film happens in 1955, which means that opening must have been 1943 – odd that everyone seems so enamored with the Mr. Mullins doll during WWII – but no matter), the Mullins welcome a nun – Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of six orphan girls – ranging in age from about 10-16 – into their large home. Mr. Mullins barely speaks, and Mrs. Mullins is even more mysterious – she stays in her room day and night, and rings a bell when she needs anything. The film quickly focuses in on Janice (Talitha Bateman) – a young girl stricken with polio, and her friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Mr. Mullins tells Janice not to go into his daughters old room – which he keeps locked at all times. But at night, the door becomes unlocked for some reason – and Janice cannot resist. You can tell where things will go from here – Annabelle the doll makes a return appearance, and soon everyone’s soul is on the line.
The film was directed by David F. Sandberg – which shouldn’t be too surprising, since his debut horror film (last year’s creepy and effective Lights Out) was produced by The Conjuring’s James Wan. Like he did with Lights Out, Sandberg clearly shows skill at slowly building atmosphere and tension, getting on the audience edge, so just a little push has them scared (it worked like a charm in the nearly full theater I saw the film in). The film is so well made by Sandberg in fact that it helps the film overcome many of its problems – the chief among them is the film internal logic consistency, which it doesn’t have it all. It almost feels like the screenwriters were making up this logic as the film progressed – which is a no-no in horror films, which thrive best when they stick to the rules they set out for themselves. Had Sandberg also found a way to make the film a little shorter (it runs nearly 2 hours, but doesn’t have nearly that much plot, so it does grow repetitive) the film would have been even better.
Annabelle: Creation should have been terrible, so the fact that it’s a good horror film is a pleasant surprise. It confirms the talent that was apparent in Lights Out – that Sandberg is a classicist horror director, and I want to see him make something even better. Something like, say, The Conjuring.