Director: David F Sandberg
Stars: Talitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Lulu Wilson
A work colleague said something to me this week about the nature of modern horror pictures. That for a mainstream picture to be considered successful – because there’s so much bad horror out there – it merely has to be average. It’s a sentiment that rang with a lot of truth, and it came to mind on exiting the cinema following Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to the prequel spin-off from James Wan’s The Conjuring. The first Annabelle received lukewarm reviews, and opinion on it since has turned downright hostile. I must admit I find it guiltily enjoyable, but for a very poor reason considering the genre; it’s really easy viewing. But word started spreading a month or two ago that this second prequel was actually, y’know, pretty good…
This isn’t unheard of, not even recently. Last year Ouija: Origin of Evil proved that you can buck the trend and improve on an initial stutter, and improve greatly at that. That precedent gave birth to hitherto unforeseen hope for Annabelle: Creation, and the word of mouth has helped too. The film arrives buoyed by this wind of optimism, but the finished article isn’t quite the runaway success you might be hoping for.
Creation ditches it’s predecessor’s metropolitan setting for the countryside and the bulk of the narrative takes place roughly 12 years before our last encounter with that damned doll. But first, some back story. Mr Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is a quiet toy maker living at a farmhouse. He makes the first ‘Annabelle’ doll. One day his daughter Bee is tragically hit by a car and killed. Now, some years later, he has reopened the farmhouse as an orphanage, though his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) remains tantalisingly hidden in a forbidden room.
Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) ferries a batch of little orphan girls to their new home out in the country. The girls are of mixed ages. One or two, quite frankly, seem old enough to probably be supporting themselves by now, but our focus is drawn to two of the younger girls; Linda (Lulu Wilson, also of Ouija: Origin Of Evil) and polio survivor Janice (Talitha Bateman). The two are established best buds, but their stay at the Mullins house is set to test that bond. There’s another forbidden room; the deceased daughter’s bedroom. But wouldn’t you know it? Paranormal forces lure Janice into taking a peek and, in a further secret room, sits the ‘Annabelle’ doll.
Unlocking this door sets off a domino effect of jumps, threats, scares and disasters in the house. As Annabelle established, the doll itself is not possessed. It doesn’t skitter around Chuckie-style. It is, however, a conduit for a powerful demon presence that is intent on sucking the souls from people and there are plenty of new mouths to feed from.
Director David F. Sandberg sticks firmly and a tad frustratingly to the modern horror rule book, and you can sense the executives over his shoulder pressing for a new jumpy set piece every ten minutes in case an audience member slips into a catatonic stupor brought on by impatience. As such Creation has a tendency to work against itself. The first hour is really about bedding in a fairly large array of characters and upping the threat level incrementally, but it is punctuated by this restless tendency toward rollercoaster ride theatrics. As such we’re treated to variations on the same set-up (something is getting closer to you / is going to grab you / oh it’s gone) time and time again. While some of these are creative, they tend to work against the intent of the film. Characters feel under-served and the monotony of it gets grating.
It’s noticeable because, around these cheap tricks, Sandberg does some good work. The opening tour of the house is showy like a mobile phone advert, but it still affords the audience a terrific sense of space and gives promise of some of the directorial flare to come. Later, a confession scene between Janice and Sister Charlotte makes use of a simple camera move to completely alter the emotional perspective of the scene. The scares are performed proficiently, but their stop-start insistence makes the film feel choppy.
In a manner similar to that seen last year in Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, Creation really charges out of the gate in its final act, when all hell breaks loose in multiple locations across the Mullins property. A walk out to a well is deliciously foreboding, while a scarecrow set up in the first hour receives a nasty little pay-off. Inside the house, a dumbwaiter that has also been pointedly established early on becomes a vehicle of terror also. These scenes clatter into one another allowing the audience no room to breathe, and this relentlessness boosts Creation up a notch. Scares compound one another until it becomes an uncomfortable experience. The film’s final minutes – like those of Ouija: Origin of Evil – are then left to awkwardly connect the dots.
So that’s the shape of the thing, but still some of the content nags. We’re given to believe this is set in the mid-50’s, yet there’s a sense from the costuming, hair styling and script that this hasn’t been made explicit at production level. Dialogue clangs with modern parlance, especially from the gaggle of orphan girls who sound as much like they’re browsing a 90’s shopping mall as investigating a rustic 50’s farm. Performances are uneven also. While Wilson is proven and Bateman turns out to be excellent across an impressive range of requests that the film asks of her, Anthony LaPaglia seems lost. It’s part and parcel of the character, sure, but it often seems like he’s barely there or has simply forgotten what to say. Meanwhile, Miranda Otto is a resource the film fails to take full advantage of.
Taking a leaf out of Marvel’s book, this is just another chapter in the ever-expanding Conjuring Universe, so there’s even a post-credits sting for the next adventure in the series, but as far as the ‘Annabelle’ myth is concerned this entry does enough to answer questions and, while sporadically effective, suggests the book is now closed on this tangent and that there is little need for a third. A mixed experience and better than the first movie simply by being far less easy, I’m left with the distinct feeling that Annabelle: Creation has succeeded only in managing to be average and may never have had loftier ambitions.