A few years back there was a little horror film that came out, loosely based on a true story that blew audiences away with its blend of old school haunted house hokum. Now, roughly three years later, that film, The Conjuring, has spawned a sequel and a spin-off, Annabelle. Naturally, because mainstream horror cares about franchises over original creativity, that film has a sequel itself (that introduces another spin-off), the enjoyable, if highly cliche-riddled Annabelle: Creation.
While the first film set about how the titular doll ended up in the possession of the Ed and Lorraine Warren (including a detour through Rosemary’s Baby territory), this sequel is actually a prequel which takes the route of 2016’s Ouija: Origin of Evil. Like that film, not only is Creation a period piece, it also features a terrific performance from Lulu Wilson. If she keeps this up, she’ll have a long career ahead of her.Through a quick cold open set in the 40’s, the origins of Annabelle are on full display, as Samuel Mullins (an exhausted looking Anthonly LaPaglia) creates the titular doll. It’s part of a limited edition he makes as his livelihood. The Mullin’s house sit on a lush piece of land far from the nearest town, but he, his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and their daughter Bee (Samara Lee) seem happy with their existence. Suddenly, while fixing a tire one day, the family are dealt a tragedy ripped straight from Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery.
Jumping ahead another 12 years, a bus load of orphans and the Sister (Stephanie Sigman) who watches over them, take up residence at the Mullins estate. The girls all seem to get along well, though they make sure to ostracize young Linda (Wilson) and polio stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman). Those two girls have a stronger bond than the rest, which is essential, since they’re the backbone of the piece. Of course, not long after their arrival, a menace rears it’s ugly demonic head, threatening the sanity and well being of everyone inside the house.Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and writer Gary Dauberman (who penned the up-coming It adaptation) do stellar work early on, placing a premium on narrative set-ups. For every possible catastrophe, there is an examination or lite set-up. Mystery looms around every corner, darkened hall, rickety dumbwaiter or forebodingly locked door. Yet, for each moment that is given attention, a dozen questions pop up in its place as the film wears on.
While LaPaglia makes the most of a decent amount of screen time, Otto is relegated to the wings for a long stretches, inhabiting a place saved for the ghoulish or downright sinister. This comes as a bit of a let down when she reveals herself to be more of an exposition casualty than menacing figure. Creation constantly gets weighed down by lack of forethought, which is chiefly felt in a third act that is merely jump scare after jump scare after jump scare.
Sandberg, through two films, is quickly slating himself to be a force when it comes to manipulating production design. Silence hangs for extra beats here, even after a terror has been unleashed, stirring up an extra dose of unease. The Mullins house, a cross between small plantation and Victorian trappings, seems to expand or contract when necessary. Much like his previous effort though, all the fog and mirrors in the world can’t cover up the plot holes that lay before him.
One of the chief arguments against the film is that the title is actually something of a misnomer. “Annabelle: The Middle Years” would be more honest. Although events are set in a different time, the spark that sets things in motion is glossed over quickly, through flashback no less. Even worse, without any fundamental rules set in place to limit the demonic force, it comes off as silly, rather that terrifying. Usually, over explaining the ins-and-outs of the supernatural can bog down pacing, here it’s an essential missing ingredient.Interestingly Creation is the kind of movie that is predicated partially by audience expectation. The first entry was terrible, so the sequel only needs to erase the memory that already exists. In that regard, it’s a resounding success. Though it has it’s own set of problems, it never threatens to undo the work of stellar first half. A shame really, as it’s quite good when it’s not trying to go for cheap scares.
There’s something to be said about a film that’s mostly a throwback to older times. For 45 minutes a screw is turned slowly and deliberately, but what comes about is repeated too often to be totally effective. Instead of nuance or delving into possible mythology, the things that go bump in the night here carry no weight, only the promise of lesser future installments.