Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto.
You know what to expect when you go into a modern horror film of the haunted house variety: a demonic spirit, innocent kids, religious parents, a haunting lullaby-like melody. As The Conjuring 2 did with ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love’ and now Annabelle: Creation with ‘You Are My Sunshine’, it may ruin your favorite love song. There’s no doubt that both of these films fit very well into this category, and Annabelle: Creation doesn’t do much to break new ground. That said, there’s nothing wrong with making a genre film, as long as you treat it with a sense of self-awareness, which so many commercial horror films nowadays fail to do.
Anticipation for Annabelle: Creation wasn’t that high either. On the one hand, its own creation comes from the bad tradition of unnecessary horror sequels and prequels that often are little more than mere cash grabs; on the other, last year’s Ouija: Origin of Evil turned out to be not only a surprisingly decent continuation of 2014’s horrible Ouija but also a far superior movie, which gave me and other critics some hope. While the fourth installment in The Conjuring series follows a typical formula – at times frustrating in its shameless familiarity – it still achieves much more than the disappointingly surface level jump scare-fare that was its predecessor, Annabelle, itself branded as a spin-off of the more successful The Conjuring.
If all that makes it sound like each film is deeply connected in some profoundly confusing way, you’ll be reassured to know that Annabelle: Creation can be seen as a standalone film, save for a couple of easter eggs that won’t make sense. It opens appropriately by taking us back to the making of the eponymous doll and showing us the tragic incident that came to traumatize the Mullins family and haunt their residence for years to come. Twelve years later, we are introduced to Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and the six girls she takes care of, who find shelter in the home of Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), the dollmaker, and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto), after their orphanage is closed down. Not much else needs to be revealed for someone to get the gist of what ensues.
The doll is as creepy as it was in previous installments, which doesn’t say much since that didn’t help in making the previous Annabelle movie feel any less undefined. However, this time we get a set of characters that are interesting and well thought out: the main protagonist is Janice (Talitha Bateman), a teenaged orphan suffering from polio, and the most likable, unpretentious girl among her peers who would rather fool around and talk about boys. She doesn’t get treated the way “different” kids usually are in horror films, such having to face physical abuse or psychological bullying; the movie is smart in showing how even though she is seemingly harmed in no way, she is left out, invisible, and never taken seriously. The fact that she feels the need to explore the house is less a symptom of dumb curiosity and more a consequence of being sidelined and neglected. It eventually hints at psychological undertones of revenge that make the story certainly more intriguing and perhaps subversive than you might expect.
Janice makes clear that she doesn’t want to be treated differently than the rest, but a younger girl named Linda (Lulu Wilson, who was in Ouija: Origin of Evil) develops a strong emotional bond with her. She is a hyperactive, enthusiastic sort of child, her wide eyes uncannily resembling those of the possessed doll, and she, too, can’t help but look around the house. Though the film is pretty subtle in terms of building mood and tension, it unfortunately feels unfocused when it comes to plot, as it involves the basic trope of people discovering things in eerie places that later naturally turn against them.
Fear comes cheap – a sudden loud noise in a dark room will suffice. But director David F. Sandberg, who became a promising new face in horror with 2016’s Lights Out, proves that he knows that pacing is more important when preparing jump scares, and as a result, the third act satisfyingly pays off. The best scares that Annabelle: Creation delivers resemble some of James Wan’s best work in the way they are choreographed and played out – one of the most intense sequences shows two girls sitting under a tent as they joke around about evil spirits through uncomfortably long alternating close-ups; while the idea does sound clichéd, the execution is effective. Other moments, like a few forced connections to the rest of the series, are at least passable, while the unforgivably worst – the “I want your soul” kind – are downright laughable. Annabelle: Creation is a straightforward horror movie that doesn’t pretend to be much more than a genre movie, and thanks to decent performances and solid filmmaking, it’s an unexpectedly enjoyable one at that.