Annabelle: Creation is the new movie in the Conjuring franchise, which continues to be lovingly stewarded by James Wan. A prequel to the previous prequel (the unfortunately forgettable Annabelle), this entry in the series focuses on the actual crafting of the dreaded doll and the first band of people it terrorises.
The terrorees in question are a nun and her little cadre of orphan girls, including polio sufferer Janice, played by Talitha Bateman, who are offered a place to live by Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto). Mullins crafted the now infamous doll shortly before the tragic death of his young daughter, and it’s obvious that a spirit still lingers in the house and is fixated with the doll and the little girls. Has the Mullin’s child returned to the house? Or perhaps something more…INSIDIOUS!
Directed by David F. Sandberg (who made the excellent horror movie Lights Out), this is the most effective instalment in the franchise since the original The Conjuring was released in 2012. Set ups and payoffs are very satisfying and well earned. Long moments of exquisite tension are just as often left hanging or harmlessly defused as they are fulfilled by a violent jump scare. There’s a very playful and camp design to these horror set pieces that will make you smile from behind the popcorn you’ll be nervously holding in front of your face. The movie is like a mischievous child beckoning you to peer closely into a box he is holding, knowing full well that he plans on screaming boo at you once you get close enough.
The ghosts and demons of these movies have always been a highlight; from the creepy old lady of the original Conjuring to the demonic Alf Garnet of The Conjuring 2, and of course the eternal presence of Annabelle herself. This time the film goes beyond its iconic creepy doll to include horrifying little girls, scrappy scarecrows, and of course the odd ghostly nun.
The Conjuring movies have always been fairly catholic in their iconography and mythology. This is no bad thing and indeed the audience I saw it with was suitably diverse and seemed unperturbed by the use of a bible as holy sacrament. I think the potential sermonising of these movies is always undercut by the joyful perversity of the villains. How serious could any religious agenda possibly be in a movie where a haunted nun spits black slime into the screaming mouth of a little girl? What this referencing does achieve is to give the ghosts and demons of this universe a rich feeling of quasi-authenticity. The demon of Annabelle: Creation is truly frightening and feels ancient in its design.
Of course these thrills would mean little if we didn’t care about the characters, which fortunately are generally more rounded here than in earlier franchise entries. The movie exploits this by exploring the many dark horrors on offer through the perspectives of each of its characters and manages to give everyone just enough to do to make them feel relevant to the story. Luckily the young actresses playing the orphan girls are all excellent.
Unfortunately, like most horror films, Annabelle doesn’t quite know what to do with its third act. Consequently we get a lot of furniture being thrown around, shouting, screaming and other loud things that are somewhat incongruous to the tone of the rest of the movie, not to mention dull. To the film’s credit, though, the finale does slow down on several occasions to give us a couple more moments of tension and build up. I must say I still found it a little anticlimactic, and the attempts to tie the film into the terrible previous prequel at the end were very misguided and unnecessary.
The biggest criticism I have to offer for this film is its lack of originality. We’ve seen this premise before, and in fact it’s not a huge departure from previous Conjuring movies. Anyone familiar with horror movies will anticipate most of the scares. But there is something to be said for the reliable hallmarks of a genre, and particularly one as emotionally engaging as horror. These movies are taking the place of the slasher films of the 70s and 80s. Audiences know what to expect, and the job of the film maker is to be inventive within the trappings of the genre. Thankfully, there’s plenty of invention on offer here. One gag involving a bed sheet thrown over the doll is sublime.
Unlike Get Out, released earlier this year, Annabelle: Creation does not seek to push the boundaries of what a horror movie can be. Nor does it attempt to subvert the expectations of the genre like It Comes At Night, also released this year. It is, however, a near perfect example of the form. It may not blow you away with its originality or invention, but it will reliably entertain you and provide you with what you want; in this case, scares!
Each instalment in this franchise feels like another contribution to a Halloween all-nighter to be held sometime in the future. Annabelle: Creation is sure to be a highlight of that evening.
3 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.