If nothing else, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is at least better than any prequel to a spinoff should be. Like last year’s ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’, this is better than the movie that preceded it thanks to hiring a director who actually knows how to deliver an effective scare set-piece. Unfortunately, unlike ‘Ouija 2’, the script for ‘Annabelle: Creation’ isn’t much of an improvement on the last slapdash ‘Annabelle’ movie.
At this point, the ‘Conjuring’ cinematic universe is split between the 1970s, with the psychic married couple checking out demon possession around the globe, and a little earlier in the timeline when a creepy doll named Annabelle causes other spooky shenanigans. This time we get her origin. It starts with a doll maker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto) who lose their daughter Annabelle in a tragic accident following the creation of a creepy doll he made with the same name. You can probably guess what happened next, but it’ll take a while to find out. We then jump ahead a few years and the couple decides to take a nun (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of orphan girls into their home. You’d think that the couple would be opposed to the idea since they have an evil doll that beckons demons in the house, but they do it anyway. Wouldn’t you know it, the kids soon find that creepy doll and bad things start happening.
Unsurprisingly, the script to this one isn’t great. It’s an origin story for ‘Annabelle’ told in a needlessly convoluted way that keeps withholding information as if we aren’t fully aware of the doll’s evil nature from previous cinematic appearances. That bogs down the pacing and doesn’t exactly lead to too many narrative twists or surprises once Annabelle gets up to trouble. You have to tolerate the lame story, which can often be downright irritating and confusing, to get to the good stuff. Thankfully, horror isn’t a genre that needs an airtight plot to survive, especially in a deep franchise entry like a spinoff prequel. This concoction might not have a story worth telling at its core, but it does deliver the scares.
Directing duties fell to David F. Sandberg, who just last summer proved that he knows his way around a jump-scare with ‘Lights Out’. The guy can craft a creepy haunting set-piece and pulls together a dozen good ones here. Admittedly, they’re mostly based around bumps in the night and little here genuinely disturbs or slithers under the skin. Then again, that’s never been a part of ‘The Conjuring’ series. These movies are all about the jump-scares and atmosphere. The franchise brought traditional film grammar back to audiences who enjoyed the static camera shocks of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ series and continues to sell summer movie versions of fairground haunted house rides. Sandberg lines up a bunch of cramped locations and unsettling props, then uses them all for maximum audience-prodding impact.
Unfortunately, it’s hard care much about the how or why of it all. The cast is decent but they don’t really have characters to play. They’re just pawns in the scare house. The story is a mess, and by the end it feels like a few extra scare set-pieces may have been concocted in reshoots to juice the climax regardless of whether or not they fit the narrative or logic of the film. Even when the prequel finally loops around to the opening of the last ‘Annabelle’ adventure, it inspires little more than a shrug rather than any sense of satisfaction. ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is a bit of a sloppy mess in absolutely every area other than its set-pieces. The movie delivers those well enough that anyone who buys a ticket to scream in a theater will at least get what they paid for. It would be nice for a little more, though. Like… you know, anything else?
David F. Sandberg now has two Hollywood-funded show reels that prove he knows how to stage scares spectacularly. Now it’s time for the guy to actually tell a story. If he can do that, he might end up with a horror movie worth watching more than once.