'Annabelle: Creation' review

In the midst of the production woes involved with the hugely expensive DC superhero films, Warner Bros. has added a steady and reliable franchise to its collection with The Conjuring series. James Wan's ghost story was a breakout hit in 2013, receiving critical raves and establishing itself as one of the best horror films of the new millennium. Much to the surprise of many, the 2016 sequel was perhaps even more impressive, going bigger and bolder while still maintaining an impeccable focus on character. Both films made over $315 million worldwide, and Warner Bros. quickly realized that they had not just a critically successful franchise on their hands, but a potential connected universe in the vein of Marvel and DC. Despite widespread pans, Annabelle (centered on a supporting character from the original Conjuring) grossed $256 million worldwide, cementing the idea that this series was here to stay. Warner Bros. and distribution partner New Line quickly announced more films set in the Conjuring universe, including The Nun and The Crooked Man

In addition to those developing projects, the studio sent Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the 2015 film that would detail the origins of the doll, into production under the direction of David F. Sandberg. No stranger to the horror genre, Sandberg burst onto the scene after being discovered by Wan himself, thanks to a short film known as Lights Out. That short later became a critically acclaimed feature, and just like Universal did with Mike Flanagan on last year's Ouija: Origin of Evil, WB hired Sandberg to create a prequel that would deliver what fans wanted the first time around. As someone who didn't see the first Annabelle and had mixed feelings on Lights Out (the short film is leagues better), I went into Creation with a good deal of skepticism. And despite handsome production values and a good deal of scares, my concerns were far from unfounded. Once again, Sandberg has proven to be adept at scaring audiences, while also struggling to tell an engaging story. The result is both frightening and one-note, genuinely scary while simultaneously feeling a bit monotonous.

Set in an unknown time and place (it's definitely not modern day though), Annabelle: Creation tells the origin story of the doll that has been terrifying audiences for years. The film begins innocuously enough, with a classic suburban Catholic family who seems to be living the traditional American life. Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is a toymaker, specializing in the kind of creepy dolls that could only come from the olden days of children's toys. His wife is a kind woman named Esther (Miranda Otto), and the couple has a daughter, Bee (Samara Lee), who is the light of their life. But being a freaky horror movie, tragedy quickly strikes for the Mullins family. While attempting to fix a broken tire, Bee chases a stray bolt into the road and is immediately struck and killed by oncoming traffic. 

Cut to 12 years later. After wallowing in their sorrows for over a decade, the Mullins family decides to welcome an orphanage of young girls to their home, with Samuel hoping to finally overcome the trauma (and supernatural horrors) that they've endured. But of course, having a bunch of kids snooping around a haunted house probably isn't the best idea. Janice (Talitha Eliana Bateman) is a polio victim, struggling to walk again while hoping to be adopted with her best friend, Linda (Lulu Wilson). Janice immediately seems to recognize that something is off in the house- Samuel is generally unfriendly, keeping a tight lock on the rooms, and Esther is hidden away, ringing a bell whenever she needs assistance. Soon enough, Janice begins to realize that there is a sinister presence in the house, and despite the doubts of Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and the other girls, chaos erupts in the Mullins home in the form of a terrifying doll and a chilling demonic presence.

David F. Sandberg is good at one thing. I would call him a one-trick pony, but that trick is really good. He specializes in the kind of scare that builds from the quiet, slowly seeping in from the darkness and then ending with a chilling burst that makes the hair on your legs stand up. He comes from the James Wan school of horror, where the build-up comes from noises and a distinct fear of the unknown. On a micro scale, this is incredibly effective. Lights Out as a short film took a simple concept and executed it to perfection, creeping its way to a payoff that has stuck in my nightmares ever since. But here's the thing- you can only do this so many times. There can only be so many manufactured scares in a movie before the audience gets exhausted. And it's not just the fact that it's a lot of jump scares- it's the same type of jump scare, over and over and over again. And for all of the wonderful flourishes that Sandberg brings to this project, he can't escape this fundamental issue. 

One could argue that The Conjuring films reach a point of repetition as well, and I would say that this is a valid claim. Wan likes to execute a very similar type of scare, and especially in the 133 minute long Conjuring 2, this got a little tedious. But while the whole franchise has always been defined by this kind of scare tactic, Annabelle: Creation is missing two key elements that have been present to balance out the tone of the series- memorable characters and a true sense of narrative momentum. Let's discuss the latter first. The Conjuring films follow a formula, and that formula places the most elaborate scares in the first act only for the story to snowball into something terrifying and thrilling. Creation never does that. This is a film that fails to gain any sense of propulsive energy, opting to just keep repeating the same scare multiple times. Even in the final 10 or 15 minutes of the film, Sandberg is still setting up intricate scares at a point where the audience should be immersed in the fate of the characters and the conclusion of the narrative.

Which brings me to the other point- the characters in this film are paper thin, poorly developed and played by actors who are unable to sell the unconvincing material. There is one significant exception to this, and that's young actress Talitha Eliana Bateman. She has the most complex performance in the film, and while I won't spoil anything, there's a depth and nuance to the role that would prove impossible for most young performers. Bateman pulls the whole thing off with astonishing ease. Everyone else in the movie feels like they know that they're in a mediocre B horror movie, which is something that couldn't be said about the main Conjuring films. Their characters are non-existent, their narratives are left unsatisfied. Even the film seems confused as to whether the story belongs to Janice or to the Mullins family. Most of the cast gets sucked into the general blandness of the film- only Bateman rises above the fray. 

Many of my problems originate with Sandberg, but a good deal of the blame has to be shifted to screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who has become the master of the Conjuring spin-offs in recent years. Dauberman's script is almost astonishingly weak, and while it manages to fit into the Origin of Evil format of effective horror prequels, it can't muster up a truly compelling story or any engaging characters. Sure, the production values are great, but we've come to expect this from the Conjuring franchise. They all look like products of the 1950s, delightfully old-fashioned in their devotion to joyful carnival thrills. And while Creation employs some interesting sun-baked locales, it still feels like a rather small-scale addition after The Conjuring 2 upped the ante in London.

Ultimately, you get a passable horror film with some good scares and a plot that gets tired real fast. Creation isn't a disaster, and I'll admit, it made me jump a few times. Audiences looking for a fun ride will probably get it. But I expect more than mediocrity from a film in the Conjuring universe, a series that has delivered complex, thoroughly enjoyable horror blockbusters. David F. Sandberg is definitely a talented director, and I'll be interested to see if he can apply his unique pop culture sensibilities to the superhero movie with Shazam. After seeing what he can do with feature-length horror on two occasions, I think a break from the genre is necessary. Creation is a respectable piece of work, but it's nowhere near as memorable or terrifying as it should be.

 THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                              (6/10)

Images courtesy of Warner Bros./New Line