Editor’s Note: Annabelle: Creation opens in wide theatrical release today, August 11, 2017.
Only Disney and Marvel have managed to crack the cinematic universe code, but that hasn’t stopped other movie studios from trying. Just as moviegoers are showing signs of fatigue, Paramount wants to turn the Transformers series into a full-fledged cinematic universe. Universal just tried and failed to create the so-called “Dark Universe” with Tom Cruise’s ill-conceived, poorly executed The Mummy (don’t worry, they’ll try again). Warner Bros. has come closest to duplicating Disney/Marvel’s success, though they’ve faltered too, less because the IP in their possession lacks value or general interest and more because the grim-dark result has turned off moviegoers who prefer their superheroes with a minimum of angst, psychological complexity, and disregard for human life. Warner Bros. finally got close to the right mix with Wonder Woman earlier this summer, so there’s still hope. And even if DC’s superheroes can’t quite catch up to Marvel in terms of pop-culture ubiquity or box-office clout, Warner Bros. has another, lesser expensive, but still potentially profitable, option: An ever-expanding series of supernatural sequels, prequels, and spin-offs linked through the James Wan-directed The Conjuring.
David F. Sandberg deploys every tool or trick in his filmmaker’s arsenal, using everything from lighting, composition, camera moves, to sound design, musical score, and silence to deliver an utterly enthralling, gripping scarefest.
With a sequel and a prequel in hand, not to mention Wan’s unavailability due to Aquaman, the next step in the Conjuring universe wasn’t another sequel or even a spin-off (that happens next year with The Nun), but another period-set prequel, Annabelle: Creation, that functions both as a prequel to 2014’s Annabelle and an expansion of the Conjuring universe. It’s another modestly conceived, ambition-free entry in the series, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ineffective one. Once it gets into horror gear, Annabelle: Creation delivers more shocks, shudders, and surprises per minute than all but a handful of recent horror efforts, including Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation’s director David F. Sandberg’s previous film. In hindsight, Lights Out plays like a show or sizzle reel, a feature-length ad for Sandberg’s considerable talents as a horror director, impressive given Sandberg’s relative inexperience directing full-length film. Working with a sturdy, workmanlike screenplay by Annabelle writer Gary Dauberman, Sandberg deploys every tool or trick in his filmmaker’s arsenal, using everything from lighting, composition, camera moves, to sound design, musical score, and silence to deliver an utterly enthralling, gripping scarefest.
After a ‘40s set prologue predictably ends in tragedy, Annabelle: Creation fast forwards to the mid-‘50s, where it remains for most of its running time (an egregiously redundant epilogue literally connects Annabelle: Creation’s last scene to Annabelle’s first scene a decade later), centering the story on a group of orphan girls who leave the relative safety of a nearby city or town for the isolated Mullins homestead in the middle of nowhere, USA. With a kind, compassionate nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), as their guide, mentor, and all-around maternal figure, the girls are in “last-chance” mode, not because they’re intrinsically “bad” girls (they’re remarkably well behaved), but because they’re out of options. If the latest endeavor fails, they’ll be carted off to other orphanages or foster homes. Two of the girls, Janice (Talitha Bateman), and Linda (Lulu Wilson), dream of being adopted together. It’s unlikely, however, given Janice’s disability (polio has left her with a leg brace and the need to use a crutch to get around).
While Bateman and Wilson receive most of the screen time and thus, the most fleshed-out, multi-dimensional characters in Annabelle: Creation, there isn’t a subpar, unconvincing performance from the supporting players.
Sandberg milks Janice’s relative immobility for practically every scare imaginable. While the other girls explore the grounds and play outside, Janice is left to fend for herself in a house that’s more shadow than light even during the daytime. Like any bored, young girl, she does some exploring herself, inadvertently opening the door to Annabelle’s release from a literal and spiritual imprisonment. Naturally, all hell breaks loose, putting the girls in extreme physical and spiritual peril at the hands of the demon-possessed doll. While Janice becomes the focal point for the demon’s attacks, the other girls aren’t immune, but even as they begin to suspect something’s awry with their home, it’s left to Linda to play unlikely hero, with the adults, as usual, proving to be either ineffective, an obstacle, or both. Whether it’s Annabelle magically appearing where she’s least wanted (i.e., anywhere), a nighttime conversation by flashlight between two of the older girls under a sheet, or a chair lift that takes on a malevolent life of its own, Annabelle: Creation keeps ratcheting up the tension and suspense, providing occasional respite that proves illusory with each subsequent attack by the host-hunting demon.
Sandberg proves almost as adept in eliciting persuasive, grounded performances from his young cast. While Bateman and Wilson receive most of the screen time and thus, the most fleshed-out, multi-dimensional characters in Annabelle: Creation, there isn’t a subpar, unconvincing performance from the supporting players. If anything, the fault lies with Dauberman’s script. With so much emphasis on Annabelle’s backstory, her connection to the couple, Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto), who offer the girls elusive sanctuary, and Janice and Linda, there’s little screen time for the other girls right up until Dauberman’s script needs them for third-act fodder. It makes for awkward, uneven storytelling, especially when the girls’ individual and collective IQs drop well under 100 and idiot plotting takes over Annabelle: Creation’s third act. Balanced against Annabelle: Creation’s first and second acts, however, it’s by no means disqualifying. If anything, the third act’s missteps are all the more glaring given their lack in an otherwise strong genre entry.
A compelling entry in the horror genre, complete with solid visuals and uniformly great performances across the bar, Annabelle: Creation stumbles in its third act thanks to an uneven if workmanlike script.