The elements of scare are all there. Lights flicker at meal times, footsteps run across the landing at night, the young girl on the top bunk just knows there’s something on the bottom, and there’s a creepy scarecrow back in the woodshed. Plus, Annabelle: Creation does for You Are My Sunshine what Insidious did for Tiptoe Through the Tulips; the crackling 78 rpm plays on its own accord just at the moment when you really don’t want to hear it.
Though the marketing reminds us that Annabelle: Creation is part of The Conjuring universe, the real-life characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren are this time nowhere to be seen. As a prequel to everything seen before (including the other prequel, 2014’s Annabelle) this introductory chapter to what presumably will produce more films starts literally at the beginning. A toy eyeball is dusted with a doll maker’s brush, then inserted into the newly molded, plastic head. Once the first of a limited edition of handmade, pigtailed dolls is completed, it goes in the box.
In a heartbreaking prologue, the doll maker’s playful daughter, Bee Mullins (Samara Lee) is killed in a devastating car accident. It’s one of those moments when everything in life is fine, then an an instant, that world is irrevocably changed.
The now sullen doll maker, Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia, whose native Australian occasionally slips in) and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto) live in a huge house among the country hills, a few miles from town. It’s twelve unhappy years since the loss of their daughter, and Sam has decided that his large and mostly empty home could be put to good use.
An orphanage has closed. Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and six young girls of varying ages have nowhere else to go, so Sam and his now bedridden wife decide to open their doors to save the orphaned girls. And in they move, excitedly exploring all corners of the house while claiming their rooms. But there’s one room that’s off-limits, and it’s the one you expect it to be: the Mullins’ departed daughter’s room with it’s nursery contents and a large dolls house all left intact. And it’s always locked. And, naturally, that’s the room that young Janice (Talitha Bateman) is attracted to. But when Janice tries the door, it opens. So does that curious door within the room that appears to be housing an unusual looking doll with pigtails, as if it was purposely locked away, imprisoned. Let the flickering lights, the running footsteps on the landing, and all the other creeps begin.
“In this house, I feel a different kind of presence,” Janice tells Sister Charlotte during an impromptu confession. Considering the things Janice has already seen running around the place, including that doll under a sheet walking towards her that vanishes once the sheet falls to the ground like a conjurer’s magic trick, having a feeling that something is there is a understatement.
As with his previous film, the effective Light’s Out, director David F. Sandberg plays with light and shadows that help add creeps and menace to the chills, but occasionally he cheats. When young Janice and anyone else who later enters the forbidden bedroom, they’ll walk in and slowly step among the toys with the spooky feeling that something might be hiding in the shadows, but they neglect to do the one thing that is second nature to anyone who enters a darkened room at night; they never switch on the lights, and there it is, in plain sight, on the wall, right by the door; the light switch. You’d buy the moment if any of them had tried it and it didn’t work, but here, where they need some light the most, they don’t even bother to reach for it.
There are also questions about the guide lines of the doll’s possession, what it can do, and where the evil will next appear. Rather than follow something consistent, there are apparitions everywhere, and not only at night, but in the middle of the day, both inside and outside of the house. The most efficient and certainly the most powerful scares come when the film deals exclusively with the doll as a conduit for evil, not so much the apparitions that will later turn up. The doll never actually moves when watching it, but turn away for a second, then look back – the head has turned. Like those Weeping Angels in TV’s Dr. Who, you don’t dare blink.
Purists tend to scoff at the James Wan cinematic world of supernatural horrors, calling films like Insidious or The Conjuring as horror movies for audiences who don’t like horror, but director Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation might make a difference and bridge the gap. With it’s conventional scares, along with a couple of obligatory Boo moments, and the all-out poltergeist climax of everything in the house being thrown against the walls, including the cast, there are also several effectively creepy occurrences that could cause even the most hardened of audience members to suddenly clutch the arms of their seats.
When one of the girls comes across Bee’s secret diary, the writing ends just before her untimely death twelve yeas earlier. But when the following empty pages are flicked through, there appears to be an extra entry buried in there some time later. In scratched writing, it reads: Dear Diary, today I came home. Now, that’s creepy. And so is the thing on the bottom bunk that can’t immediately be seen. And so, too, is the lyric coming from the record player in the forbidden bedroom, “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” But more importantly for both purists and mainstream horror audiences alike, it’s all a huge improvement on the previous Annabelle.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 109 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)