As if you needed further proof that dolls are creepy, this summer’s Annabelle installment is topping the box office once again. This weekend the haunted toy scored 35 million, more than doubling its budget in only the first few days. If The Twilight Zone, Poltergeist, Dead Silence and the Chucky franchise weren’t enough, Annabelle: Creation provides further evidence that audiences love to be scared of killer dolls. This prequel will certainly serve up toy-driven terrors better than its predecessor, but Creation is far from a horror classic.
Annabelle: Creation is the fourth film in the Conjuring universe, a shared cinematic horror franchise taking after Marvel’s successful prototype. The spirit-pestered doll was first introduced in James Wan’s superb horror offering The Conjuring, in which some young nurses unwittingly permitted a demonic presence to bring the doll to life. Though the toy was only a minor element in the film, audiences loved her so much she earned her own spin-off a year later. Unfortunately, a lack of compelling storytelling or effective atmospherics rendered the movie a snoozer, but that didn’t stop horror fans from showing up in droves.
While 2014’s Annabelle prequel divulged some the doll’s past, this year’s Creation takes things back to the very beginning. One of the major problems with the first film is that it didn’t reveal anything about Annabelle’s origins at all, and it featured very little connection to the Conjuring franchise. Creation makes amends by depicting the character’s definitive beginnings, and by presenting a much more gratifying expansion of the series. You probably won’t find Annabelle’s backstory very surprising, but Creation certainly delivers on the promise that the film preceding it failed to follow through on.
In Creation, we meet Annabelle’s maker, toy-crafting Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), who designs a surfeit of delightful trinkets for his daughter Bee. Bee unfortunately dies at a very early age, and a bedridden and disfigured wife reverts Samuel to a grieving and isolated state. He later allows a group of orphaned girls to take shelter in his home. Janice (Talitha Bateman), an orphan girl suffering from polio, finds herself enticed to the forbidden bedroom of the Mullins’ deceased daughter. Inside Bee’s closet, she discovers a rather ugly looking doll, and inadvertently releases a demonic force that proceeds to wreak havoc on the home.
The characters and plot of Annabelle: Creation are thinly-characterized and familiar for standard horror fare. The chief protagonists are orphaned girls, actresses offering limited acting range beyond their natural sweetness, portraying roles that rely on low-hanging fruit for sympathetic screenwriting. Due to her polio, Janice has a bad leg, and can’t run and play with the other girls. On top of being a handicapped orphan, she and her best friend are bullied by the older girls in the group. As soon as the orphans arrive, it is fairly obvious where things are heading, but once things start going bump in the night, it’s clear Creation has more tricks up its sleeve.
Creation was directed by David F. Sandberg, and it is his sophomore effort after last year’s decent horror production Lights Out. Sandberg’s contribution to Creation is comparable to his work on his first film. Creation’s similarity to generic horror movies lacks a sense of unease, but Sandberg demonstrates an adequate reserve of ingenuity, as the director utilizes a number of amusing devices for eliciting scares. Janice’s bum leg effectively limits her mobility, and this culminates in a brilliant use of a faulty chair-lift that goes down the stairs at an excruciating pace. Other fun sources of fright include a scarecrow, a well, and self-animated puppets.
One of my major criticisms with the first Annabelle is that the film was hardly about Annabelle at all. It was more about the demon associated with it, affording the doll hardly any screen time. This weakness is improved this time around, although we never see Annabelle actually walk or move her head, as she was described to in The Conjuring. Here, the scope of Annabelle’s movement entails disappearing and reappearing where she’s not supposed to be. This forces the filmmakers to be more creative, but it highlights a fundamental flaw of the concept: there are only so many scares to be had in a film starring an inanimate object.
While the more realistic take on a possessed doll is more lifelike than the cartoonish antics of Chucky, these films largely concern spiritual forces rather than Annabelle herself. However, this latest installment delivers much more satisfying connection to the franchise, although I would love to see Ed and Lorraine Warren show up in some fashion. James Wan’s dually effective Conjuring films remain the cream of the crop in this shared cinematic universe, but Annabelle: Creation should restore fans’ hopes that New Line Cinema can offer some worthwhile content in spin-offs to the series.