Curiosity kills the orphan
Annabelle: Creation isn't the type of horror movie content to haunt you with eery music and jump scares. Characters in Annabelle: Creation are maimed, die, and come back to life possessed by demons. There are stakes and consequences and bad things happen, which you can't really say of even the highly regarded Conjuring movies, whose protagonists always seem to just barely escape the clutches of one demonic creature or another. Unfortunately for these characters--though not for audiences--that isn't the case in Annabelle: Creation.
Set in the ever-expanding James Wan-iverse of horror movies--which also includes The Conjuring 1 and 2, the previous Annabelle film, and the upcoming Crooked Man and The Nun-- Annabelle: Creation deftly accomplishes that crucial feat of making you care about almost every character. That includes several extremely adorable orphan girls, their kindly nun-mom, and a sad dollmaker and his wife--then making bad things happen to them.
The tale begins with the dollmaker, Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), whose happy family is torn asunder when his daughter, Annabelle (Samara Lee), dies. Twelve years later he and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), invite the orphans (most notably Talitha Bateman as Janice and Lulu Wilson as Linda) to foster with them in the hopes it will liven up the house. In a way, it does, if evil dolls, possessed scarecrows, and a murderous demon count as life.
Annabelle: Creation's main flaw is that it's actually pretty crucial that viewers understand where it falls within the canon of these connected films, especially regarding the ending, which ties a neat little continuity bow on the whole thing. As its name implies, Annabelle: Creation is the story of the crafting of the Annabelle doll, which first appeared in the opening to The Conjuring and later starred in its own spin-off, Annabelle.
Yes, Annabelle: Creation is prequel to a spin-off, and it's also the doll's second origin story, as the first Annabelle movie offered a perfectly fine explanation for her demonic disposition. Creation simply offers a better one, and makes sure to do it in a way that doesn't erase anything that happened in the other films, while simultaneously setting up more Wan-iverse movies with subtle Marvel-esque nods and Easter eggs. It's all pretty impressive.
Creation is director David F. Sandberg's second major feature, after last year's Lights Out, which was based on the short film of the same name that prompted James Wan to give Sandberg a shot at the big leagues. Sandberg continues to develop his style in Creation, including the use of light and darkness--a flickering flashlight under a sheet, shadows as thick as fog, bulbs exploding and hurtling from their sockets--that's quickly becoming his signature.
This movie has its share of jump scares, enhanced by a shrieking score punctuated by pauses of pregnant silence. But even more effective are its moments of sheer dread, like when a sheeted figure walks purposely toward the camera, its feet gradually pulling the covering underneath until it slips off to reveal--well, no spoilers. Excellent editing and use of foreground and background elements in scenes like that make them white-knucklers.
Annabelle: Creation does suffer somewhat from the classic horror movie malady, "why would you go in there?" syndrome. These poor little orphans, especially Bateman's Janice, are unusually curious, but even the most adventurous little tyke probably wouldn't return to Annabelle's forbidden bedroom so many times--certainly not after after what happens during Janice's first few visits. Creation mines some comedy from this, though, like when the likable Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), apparently keen to stick to her routine, calmly instructs the girls to head to bed moments after a particularly horrific event. It lends the movie a self-awareness that others in the genre sometimes lack.
Creation also does a fantastic job setting up Chekhov's guns all over the house and surrounding land--props, like the aforementioned scarecrow, a dilapidated dumbwaiter, a motorized indoor chairlift, and a Ring-esque deep, dark well, that re-enter the story at various points in ever more terrifying ways. Toward the climax, it juggles multiple small subplots at the same time, separating, terrorizing, and reuniting its characters as various of these guns go off. By the end, all the movie's early promises have paid off, and you'll be left panting and relieved.
Bateman deserves particular mention as Janice, the most lovable orphan and the perspective character for much of the film. Polio-stricken, she hobbles around the house with the help of a brace and a crutch, watching forlornly as the other girls play. The actress shows fantastic range, forming an emotional center that pulses at the dark heart of Annabelle: Creation.
This type of horror is often predicated on the idea that demons would have no reason to act logically; if their purpose is to chip away at our sanity until they can worm their way into our souls, then spooky hijinks like flicking the lights in a dollhouse on and off or rushing toward someone just to disappear at the last second make perfect sense. But the antagonistic forces in Annabelle: Creation have an endgame beyond making the characters crap their pants, and when everything pops off, it really gets crazy, easily matching both Conjuring movies (and far surpassing the previous Annabelle film) in raw, climactic terror.
Annabelle: Creation doesn't quite stand on its own, particularly in its ending. But thanks to solid performances from its adult and child actors, skillful directing, truly terrifying moments that go beyond cheap jump scares, and a self-awareness that many scary movies lack, it teeters at the peak of this ever-expanding world of connected horror, asking you only to jump with it down into the dark.