When James Wan’s The Conjuring hit cinemas in 2013 it was rightfully heralded as one of the greatest supernatural horrors ever made, instantly shooting to the very top of many genre aficionados’ lists and sewing the seeds for an ever-expanding cinematic universe to the scale no horror franchise has pulled off before. Then Annabelle was released. Perhaps it was too soon to try and capitalise on The Conjuring’s mega-success, particularly because the film felt like a rush-job, but Annabelle was largely disappointing, playing more like a paint-by-numbers ghost story than anything even close to the perils of Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Now we have Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the spin-off, with Lights Out director David F. Sandberg taking directorial duties. One thing’s for certain: this is nowhere near as bad as Annabelle was; in some ways, it’s even better than The Conjuring 2, laying closer to the original with scares that unfold aggressively, a pace that doesn’t drag, and a story that’s actually interesting. Granted, the film has many flaws, but the vast improvement on its sluggish predecessor is undeniable.
The film opens with an Annabelle origin story set in the 1940s, introducing us to when the doll was first made and how it came to be a conduit for sinister forces. It was crafted by fatherly dollmaker Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) for his young daughter (try guess her name) whom he and his wife Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto) live with in remote Southern California. It’s established that the daughter likes to go to sleep listening to “You Are My Sunshine” on vinyl, but not much time is spent with the young girl before she’s killed in a hapless accident, hit by a car while holding her sunken-eyed, pale-faced doll.
Some years later the grieving Mullins try and turn their home into an orphanage, welcoming six young Catholic schoolgirls and their guardian nun (Stephanie Sigman), most of whom explore the house and its surrounds with reckless abandon even when young Polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman) unwittingly frees the locked-up Annabelle doll, and hence the demon that has attached itself to the toy.
Sandberg doesn’t have to wait too long before he’s delivering thrilling, muscular scares with an understanding that aggressive hauntings have become much more terrifying than the slow-and-subtle thrills of something like Paranormal Activity. Footsteps start slowly creeping and then quickly turn into running thuds, demons contort themselves and others with absolutely no time to waste; this is far from the lethargic jump scares of the original Annabelle, keeping the air thick and gloomy but also playing around with how these scares are actually layered. It’s intelligent even the story does trip over itself in the third act, recalling the brilliant James Wan proved in 2013 with the only thing holding Sandberg back being the premise itself.
Let’s face it; dolls aren’t scary. Chucky wasn’t scary. Dead Silence wasn’t scary. Annabelle sure as hell wasn’t scary. There are limitations to how seriously we can take the film titular doll and for the most part Sandberg seems to realise this; which is why the doll spends the majority of the film washed in darkness, half-hidden with the knowing nod that there’s something much more sinister at play then just a painted wooden face.
The film does get ahead of itself when playing around with The Conjuring mythology, hinting to demon nuns and what not; although there is a clever tie-in to the first Annabelle towards the very end of the film. These moments of levity coupled with a few nonsensical flaws (c’mon Esther, you can still walk) suck you in and out of the otherwise tense atmosphere; an atmosphere that The Conjuring kept consistent from beginning to end.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Annabelle: Creation will screen in Australian cinemas from Thursday 10th August.