A spinoff pre-prequel to the terrific The Conjuring, Annabelle: Creation is a predictable horror romp. Jump-scares are plentiful and are invariably preceded by long, suspenseful silence as an onscreen victim peers nervously into the unknown, breathing heavily as we anxiously await the inevitable explosion of sound and blood-curdling imagery.
This is, of course, one of the most common horror mechanics there is, but common is only bad if it’s done badly. Annabelle: Creation isn’t groundbreaking or cutting-edge in the slightest, but it uses old-school techniques and top-notch sound design incredibly well, delivering a no-frills, all-chills horror experience that feels far more worthy of its association with The Conjuring than its 2014 predecessor, Annabelle.
The new film takes place before the events of Annabelle, following the origins of the creepy doll from the title. In the ’40s, a tragic car accident takes the life of Bee (Samara Lee), the young daughter of dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto). Twelve years later, the Mullins open the doors of their ornate family farmhouse to a nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), and a group of orphan girls. Samuel — now a distant paranoiac — welcomes the girls to make themselves at home but strictly forbids them from entering Bee’s old room. Naturally, his edict tickles the curiosity of one of the girls, Janice (Talitha Bateman), who investigates the room and unleashes a demonic force, embodied by the doll, that targets her for a reason known only known by Samuel and his now bedridden, disfigured wife.
Again, the premise is nothing new, but all of the film’s elements are executed well and work in concert to create a palpable sense of dread and helplessness. The design of the house itself is perhaps the film’s greatest boon: it’s creepy in the way your great-grandma’s house is creepy, replete with dark corners, dusky hallways, and child-sized nooks and crannies for the girls to cower in, most notably a creaky dumbwaiter and a stairlift with Janice’s name on it. The atmosphere is so thick you can almost smell the sour musk, and while the house may appear somewhat quaint in the daylight hours, at night it becomes a veritable devil’s playhouse.
Samara Lee as Bee Mullins
Offsetting all of the film’s wickedness is Bateman who, despite her character’s naivete, is so sweet and likable you can’t help but hope Janice makes it out of the wretched house in one piece. Playing her best friend, Linda, is Lulu Wilson, who exudes just as much innocence and has nice chemistry with Bateman, establishing the film’s stakes far better than the narrative’s religious overtones do. The rest of the cast members do their fair share in selling the terror of Annabelle’s wrath, but it’s Bateman and Wilson who make us genuinely hope for their well-being. Surprisingly, it’s the older actors who are the least compelling, conveying fear in a glazed-over, hollow kind of way when their younger counterparts go for a more primal approach.
In director David F. Sandberg’s 2016 offering, Lights Out, he demonstrated a firm grasp on the art of the jump-scare, and in Annabelle: Creation, he cements himself as one of the best doing it today. All of his scares are telegraphed; when Janice sits on the turtle-slow chairlift in an attempt to escape Annabelle, you just know something horrible is about to happen. But Sandberg always manages to jolt you when you least expect it, cleverly subverting expectations with feints and false-alarms that stretch out the suspense to unbearable lengths. Once we let our guard down, even if only for a moment, that’s when he hits us with the proverbial “BOO!”
Not enough can be said about the film’s sound design, which is so detailed that it creates a 3-D effect that’s enveloping and immersive without the need for any goofy 3-D glasses. It’s an assault on the ears from all angles, and whenever Annabelle pops up out of nowhere, the accompanying “boom” is so concussive it’ll just about knock you out of your seat. Sandberg’s imagery is equally powerful, evoking a sense of claustrophobia in tight spaces and a sense of eerie mystery in the more open environments.
As cinematically rock-solid as Annabelle: Creation is, the movie isn’t without its weaknesses, particularly in the logic department. It’s expected that we should suspend our disbelief for a movie about a doll come to life, but an ongoing distraction throughout is a matter of sound and proximity. The girls scream and wail as Annabelle chases and terrorizes them around the house, often smashing pieces of furniture to pieces, and yet no one seems to hear any the commotion, even when they’re in the next room. This happens on several occasions and becomes incredibly frustrating. It’s true that some of the joy and humor of horror movies stems from the stupidity of the onscreen victims, but this movie takes it a little too far.