“In this house, I feel a different kind of presence.”
By horror movie standards, last year’s unexpectedly astonishing Ouija: Origin of Evil was to 2014’s disposable Ouija what Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The prequel to the spirit board-inspired franchise that had no real right to exist became one of the most impressive and accomplished horror movies of 2016, and that’s certainly no small feat. Given the right director, a talented cast, an expressive period setting, some genuine atmosphere and grounded aesthetics, Origin of Evil became a classic example of how anything can work if you have the right team and the right mindset. Even movies based on long-standing board games could result in genuinely near-great modern horror treats.
Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to 2014’s Annabelle, the prequel spin-off to James Wan’s The Conjuring films, certainly had a lot going against it. The original Annabelle was about as mediocre and forgettable as recent horror movies come, and there was little reason to suggest this doll-centered creeper — which stunk of desperation from Warner Bros. to snuggle in what little cash they could from a familiar property — would be anything worthwhile or noteworthy. Yet, under director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), they came with a similar approach to Origin of Evil‘s unexpected success. They hired a strong, impressionistic filmmaker, a sturdy cast of unknown-but-nevertheless-talented actors, some creepy atmosphere and generally enclosed tension. The result, however, isn’t quite as revolutionary. Annabelle: Creation is a fine enough prequel spin-off. Don’t get me wrong. It’s better than it deserves to be, and it’s effective in the right tension-filled moments. But it’s also, like its predecessor, fairly unmemorable and mostly unnecessary.
Does that make it bad? Most certainly not. Does it make it fairly unremarkable? Basically. Annabelle: Creation isn’t exactly the start of an extraordinary new horror franchise for WB, nor is it among the worst studio horror films you’ll see this year. Rather, it’s a middle-of-the-road, competently made but never truly stunning achievement, not one for the ages but one that’ll earn some cheap scares from some and more than a couple groans from others. Annabelle: Creation isn’t necessarily one to exceed your expectations.
Smalltown doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his loving wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), are struck with a horrific tragedy when their young daughter Annabelle “Bee” Mullins (Samara Lee) dies unexpectedly. Living isolated and alone for 12 long years after the fact, the mourning parents welcome their home to the orphan girls of a recently-closed orphanage. Among the handful of gals under Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and Father Massey’s (Mark Bramhall) care are Linda (Lulu Wilson) and the polio-stricken Janice (a very good Talitha Bateman). Sisters in spirit, they promise they’ll always take care of each other, no matter what, and they’ll never leave each other’s side. That is a bond that’s put to the ultimate test when they learn of the supernatural spirits which dwell inside this half-abandoned house.
Upon sneaking into the late Bee’s room, Janice discovers a freaky little old timey doll that rests behind a locked door. (Side note: don’t open locked stuff in horror movies.) From there, the creepy Raggedy Ann doll from Hell wrecks havoc upon the household, tormenting the residents and promising the demise. As it turns out, Samuel and Ether — who remains bedridden and disfigured on the left side of her face — hold secrets they wish were kept still locked within their lost daughter’s room. For when the spirit of Annabelle is unleashed, nothing can be done to prevent her unholy torment and terror.
Unlike 2014’s first attempt to give Annabelle her own feature-length film, Annabelle: Creation builds the freights around the doll and not merely from the doll’s stone-faced presence. For the original film’s biggest grievance is making it deathly apparent that staring at the unblinking face of an unsettling doll isn’t necessarily enough on its own to carry a major motion picture. It’s effective as all get out in small doses within the first Conjuring movie, most certainly. But when given the solo treatment on the big screen, it’s not quite enough, and the first film paid the price for that greatly. Thankfully, however, Creation lets Annabelle linger in the background while the truly terrifying stuff happens around her shelved existence.
It’s not as if we, the ideal moviegoers, need to be reminded of Annabelle and her rosy cheeked half-smile in every waking second. There are only so many static shots of her unmoving face and periodical shots of her creaking her wooden head and neck ever so slowly to the side you can take before it gets really, really old, and thankfully Sandberg, screenwriter Gary Dauberman, and editor Michel Aller understand that beautifully. Rather than letting the possessed doll do the heavy lifting, let the genuine creepiness happen around her, and then use that unsettling music and overly-lingering camera when it’s appropriate.
The result, then, is a well-filmed, well-made haunted house thriller where the lights flicker, the shadows follow and the floor goes bump in the night. It’s traditional in the best sense and also, sadly, to a fault. Like too many horror movies today, Annabelle: Creation is prone to tedious jump scares and familiar tricks. Despite some impressively build tension in the right key moments, especially in the second half, Annabelle: Creation can’t help feeling overlong and overbearing. At nearly 2 hours, Sandberg’s latest lacks the efficiency of his last film (which I also had some problems with, but that’s a discussion to be had elsewhere) and it doesn’t capture the imagination of his audience in quite the same way. As a result, his newest film can be a little tiresome, like the first film, and it can be repetitive in the same ways too. It’s admittedly one of the rare horror movies that actually gets more engaging as it goes long, but sadly, that’s not quite enough to make it a good horror film. It ultimately just makes it a kinda decent/kinda lousy one.
To the filmmakers’ credit, Annabelle: Creation is better than it should be and creepier than one expects. But that doesn’t quite make it good. It doesn’t make it bad, but it’s not quite enough to win you over. At least, not completely. Sandberg is on the verge of making a really solid horror film. He knows the genre better than most filmmakers in his field, but he still hasn’t quite found his truest success. Sometimes you make gold out of hay and sometimes hay turns into a firm but a little scratchy mattress. Annabelle: Creation isn’t going to wow everyone, but it’s fine for what it is. But you can’t help hoping for something that almost lives up to its unexpected potential. It lays the foundation for good horror, but it never quite finds its way by the very end – though it does get close (but, sadly, no cigar)! Annabelle: Creation almost births a compelling sequel franchise for The Conjuring franchise. Maybe the third time will be the charm?