At this point, I am fairly certain that Annabelle, the creepy doll that looks like she was crafted on Jeffrey Dahmer’s workbench in The Conjuring, is the only feature creature to have three canonical origins in her own shared universe. There’s the original (and frankly still the best) in James Wan’s first Conjuring picture, which is in turn based on the definitely “true story” from the crusading Warren family; there’s the rather tasteless Sharon Tate/Manson Family-lite retcon in the first utterly forgettable Annabelle spinoff; and now there’s Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to the prequel that was spun off from the “true story.” Got that?
Honestly, all these jump scares and box office dollars from Wan’s unsettling redesign of a Raggedy Ann doll makes Annabelle likely the most lucrative movie prop in history. And one of these days, the old girl is going to rock it in her own awesome solo movie. I just know it. Alas though, that day is not today.
While Annabelle: Creation attempts to follow in the footsteps of last year’s horror prequel period piece, Ouija: Origin of Evil, which itself earned the prize for most marked franchise improvement, Creation is more or less the same mediocre product that we got last time. There are a few more set-pieces than I recall from the 2014 effort, and one or two somewhat deliver, but in spite of director David F. Sandberg’s best swooping camera efforts, this doll still feels stitched together and totally devoid of a heart or brain. And the electricity that comes from a well-placed jump scare can only do so much.
In Annabelle: Creation, it turns out neither the nursing students at the heart of the “true story,” nor the first 1969 set prequel, told the real origin of Annabelle’s creation. That chestnut apparently lies in the vaguely rural American heartland during the vaguely early 1960s. Actual time and space though can’t be focused upon too much, lest the film actually had to invest in anything other than its window dressings.
Within this realm, we meet Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a half-dozen or so all-girl orphans who have been allowed to move into a spacious farmhouse from the turn of the century. It seems their orphanage has been shut down by their parish, and the only way to keep all the girls together is to accept the hospitality of grumpy Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his disabled wife Esther (Miranda Otto), whom wears a mask and hides away in a separate apartment like the Phantom of the Opera.
This couple had a daughter who we met during a prologue. After that child died, they’ve gone 12 years without having a kid in their home… but something is there. However, instead of ever talking about it, even when one of the orphans gets thrown over a stairwell railing, they just assume everything’s normal and that the demonic doll locked away in their dead daughter’s bedroom is entirely fine. But poor Janice (Talitha Bateman) might disagree since she is the one the doll is targeting for possession and corruption.
Janice’s best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) tries to help her while the older girls, including Carol (Grace Fulton) and Nancy (Philippa Coulthard) just roll their eyes until it’s too late, but it’s really just a menu of victims to be tormented by well-timed bumps and boos. And admittedly, the timing is solid.
If the 2014 film not so wisely tried to merge Rosemary’s Baby with the actual nightmare that befell the wife of that film’s director, Anabelle: Creation strives for a Stephen King touch. There’s more than a hint of Pet Sematary here, with parents who clearly wanted their lost child back getting something far more evil in return. But these ideas are ultimately just background for the scares, no more vital for the actual experience than the wallpaper on the ghost girl’s room.
Director Sandberg, who helmed the visually clever Lights Out last year, has some fairly gnarly shots that somewhat mimics The Conjuring’s James Wan and his penchant for constant movement. But it’s most reminiscent here of director Sam Raimi’s infamous use of visual whiplash in the Evil Dead movies. The best scare might even cross the line from Wan’s preference for grueling suspense and enter Raimi’s revelry in the gross out. Still, none of these scares ever really deliver on anything but a fairly basic thrill, because the film’s screenplay by Gary Dauberman and the overall approach barely even reach for the elusive goal of perfunctory.
The characters’ interactions may even suggest mass possession since each rarely acts in her own self-interest, much less the audience’s. Refusing to leave a house after someone is slaughtered in the most gruesome of ways, or insisting on glancing down a spooky well within which you’ve already chucked a malevolent doll, Wan-produced bells and whistles can still hit the brick wall that is ‘80s slasher movie logic.
And that logic is discordant too since Creation regularly breaks its own rules that were established in previous films and manufactures scares that are lifted straight from The Ring, The Visit, and even that bit with Robert Shaw and the fishing line in Jaws. Understandably, this is likely due to the fact that there are only so many ways to light a child’s toy where it occasionally fidgets while your head is turned, but them’s the breaks when making a movie about a faintly nasty piece of porcelain. It also does not excuse that even though a young girl’s soul might lie in the balance between Heaven and eternal damnation, the conflict seems as moot as taking a piece of rubbish to the nearest trashcan.
Unfortunately, the most impressive part of Annabelle: Creation is when the film is preceded by the first five or so minutes of the newest adaptation of Stephen King’s It. When the toy is upstaged by the clown, you know you have a rotten happy meal, indeed.
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