The Conjuring was a massive surprise smash when it opened in 2013. After all, you don’t make a $20 million film and make 16 times your budget back without anticipating franchise potential. Since then, we’ve had a sequel and a spin off Annabelle, based on the possessed doll that The Warrens found in the first Conjuring. Annabelle – despite being significantly worse than the masterful two Conjuring films – did well enough to warrant the existence of Annabelle: Creation. This unnecessary prequel to the unnecessary prequel to The Conjuring is probably at its worst when attempting to connect itself too much to the overall “universe” being developed here. There’s allusions to an upcoming The Nun spin off based on one of the central ghost characters in The Conjuring 2 and even a bit of connection to the first Annabelle films that has to contort some things around to set that up. While not as offensive as certain other franchises attempting to be a cinematic universe, these moments of world building ultimately come across as shoehorned, especially when the central story of Annabelle: Creation is pretty solid ground for a stand alone horror movie.
Yes, despite the awkward clunkiness established in the rather bland Annabelle from 2014, Annabelle: Creation manages to rise out of those ashes and create an effective little horror film enclosed within this house. The mythology of the first Annabelle is carried over here, mainly with a demon that uses the titular doll as a conduit from which it can come into the world and search for a new body to inhabit. While the initial film made all of that feel so underwhelming, Annabelle: Creation actually takes advantage of the imagery. Directed by David F. Sandberg – who made a big splash last year with the horror film Light’s Out – one can see why he’s been a sought after director.
Sandberg takes advantage of every shot to build up atmosphere, mainly with an incredibly measured lighting style. There are traditional horror shots in Annabelle: Creation where a character looks into a dark abyss and sees nothing. Yet, Sandberg and his team know just how much to show of the young girl the Annabelle doll is named after or the demon possessing the doll in the dark hallway to terrify without teasing too much. It’s just bright enough for your eyes to adjust and look genuinely frightening. Truly, a stark upgrade on the style of lighting influenced by James Wan much of horror has had in the last few years.
This all was present in Sandberg’s direction from Lights Out. Hell, there’s still plenty of jump scares to be had. People tend to be silent followed by someone sneaking up on them. To its credit, the jump scares in Annabelle: Creation aren’t “edit followed by BOOM sound effect.” They’re used to help create the unease of being caught by Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) without resorting to the much more obvious jump scares immediately. There’s a tension that mounts as we see more and more corners of this creeping decaying house and are petrified our investigation will alert danger. Even using wonderful props, like the toy gun that gives us a fishing horror scene in a house. It’s a great example of using curiosity of the dark for horror antics without feeling too much like “stupid character syndrome.” I mean, there’s a bit of that occasionally, but not nearly as much as one would expect for a modern studio horror movie.
It helps that these characters are actually given a bit of thought. Mr. and Mrs. Mullins (Miranda Otto) have this creepy aesthetic that masks a real tragedy and loss that emanates through the empty house. Seeing their daughter die early on may give more than a few early clues to what is masking our demon, but it provides a solid emotional grounding for the exposition ladened reveals an inherent tragedy. There’s also a nice little core in the friendship between Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson). Both orphans who dream of being adopted as sisters is simple, but sturdy set up for their friendship. Giving us appropriate stakes so the bigger reveals mean something. Same with Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), who gives Janice a true glance at an ultimatum. One that presents a docile acceptance of ghosts or being separate from those you love.
Yes, Annabelle: Creation actually cares about its characters and stakes. It’s just as shocking for me as it is for you. Much like last October’s Ouija: Origin of Evil (which also featured Lulu Wilson), this sequel to an unnecessary property cash grab actually works as its own self contained horror movie. Which is especially impressive for a horror movie with a doll where the doll isn’t really seen moving. It’s all about the manipulation of that doll to elicit inherent terror, especially for these girls stuck in a creepy old house. We care about the characters and give the scares more authenticity in the process. While the future of this whole Conjuring universe may be up in the air – personally I’m not totally convinced about that Nun spin off idea – this is a clever studio horror film stuck within those constraints. Always nice to see solid craft in a cash grab.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Dangling Doll Parts
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