There’s likely to be some justifiable trepidation about the quality of Annabelle: Creation, the fourth film in what the marketing now bills as ‘the Conjuring universe’, given the poor reception for the first Annabelle spin-off and the generally low hit-rate of studio horror movies among even moderately well-read genre fans.
But it’s not even 12 months since director Mike Flanagan turned Ouija: Origin Of Evil into one of the most surprising films of last year. His prequel to the profitable but poor Hasbro horror was an engaging and creative chiller, and Creation has drawn favourable comparisons for the way in which it also brings in a new director – David F Sandberg, fresh off last year’s Lights Out – to reinvigorate the latest studio-mandated spin-off. It hardly reaches the heights that Flanagan did, but it’s still something of a success.
For those who aren’t up on the lore, Annabelle is a possessed doll that made minor appearances in The Conjuring and its sequel, locked up in the Batcave style trophy room of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. In both design and backstory, the doll has veered off from the “real events” that inspired the parent series. The first spin-off prequel, which was set in the 1960s, set up a mythology around the character that is honoured in Creation, a prequel to the prequel, but largely falls into the background of a new story.
This origin story circles back to 1957, as polio survivor Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) are among a gaggle of orphaned girls who move into St. Eustace’s Girls’ Home with their caretaker Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman.) The house belongs to dollmaker Mr. Mullins, (Anthony LaPaglia) and his bed-ridden wife, (Miranda Otto) who have never got over their own family tragedy, and the new tenants soon come to discover the supernatural secrets of the couple’s isolated home.
If you like your cinematic scares weirder, scarier and less easily marketed than the likes of The Conjuring, you’re probably sceptical. But Sandberg has at least used the toolbox of ‘quiet, quiet, BANG’ cinema in more unpredictable ways than other directors working the same sausage machine, and that’s what makes Creation more of a treat than the first Annabelle movie.
He’s redesigned the titular doll a little, to make it look more like something that anyone would make for a child than it has in the last three movies, but he’s definitely not reinventing the wheel here. It should go without saying that this isn’t going to win over anyone who’s already taken against the series and its tropes. If Lights Out left you cold, that’s as good a barometer as any for how you’ll fare with this one.
For the most part, the young cast are especially well used. Bateman is well cast as Janice, a girl who feels separated from her peers by her condition, even before she’s singled out by the terrors of their new home. She can only walk with the aid of a leg brace and a crutch, which amps up the tension in cases where she’s endangered, but happily, doesn’t feel too exploitative. You can imagine someone, somewhere, rubbing their hands together at the prospect of a gag with a haunted stairlift, but somehow it doesn’t feel so mean-spirited.
Elsewhere, other than a change behind the scenes, the other thing that Annabelle: Creation has in common with the Ouija prequel is the young Wilson as Linda. She’s an extraordinarily expressive actress who easily gets the audience onside, especially as she’s the one who’ll yell “Who cares? Run!” in moments where other characters are gaping at some spooky doings instead of making good their escape.
But there’s only so far that the leads’ charisma can carry the film. Sigman dispenses devout grown-up uselessness, while LaPaglia and Otto are relegated to tremulous exposition, and the longer the film goes on, the more you realise that returning screenwriter Gary Dauberman cares little for that old “why don’t they just leave the house?” chestnut. But in its favour, it has several attention-grabbing setpieces, including what would be the best use of a bedsheet in any new release, if only A Ghost Story wasn’t also in cinemas this week.
Along those lines, there’s more of a concerted effort to live up to The Conjuring, the sleeper hit that started it all, ranging from the specific types of scares to the fact that is part of yet another cinematic universe in the making. It’s a stronger film when it stands alone than when it winks, however briefly, to previous films and forthcoming ones – The Nun, The Crooked Man and a third Conjuring movie are all in the pipeline. To that end, there are two Marvel-style stings over the course of the end credits to hint where those films might go.
If you’ve been happy to go along with these movies so far, then you may safely believe the hype – Annabelle: Creation is an engaging and entertaining watch, both despite and because of how it largely hews to the formula of its fledgling universe. The plot points and pitfalls of that formula, and of prequels in general, are all present and uninspired as ever, but it deserves extra marks for execution, and particularly for Bateman and Wilson.