Annabelle Creation is an unnecessary entry into an unnecessary franchise, which arguably works heavily in the film’s favor. Lacking any sort of logical justification for its existence—well, beyond the good ol’ fashioned money grab—the film is forced to work hard to earn the benefit of your ass in its seat, and it makes a shockingly good case for itself along the way.
A prequel to 2014’s Annabelle—itself a prequel to 2013’s The Conjuring, which got a sequel in 2016’s The Conjuring 2 (which is slated for a prequel of its own with next year’s The Nun)—Annabelle Creation relishes in the prospect of its own obsolescence, allowing itself to be bigger and bolder than its predecessor as a method of vindication. Sure, it’s shoehorned and not needed, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
And fun it is. With cynicism hanging over it like a blade on a pendulum, Annabelle Creation holds its head high and says, “Let’s do this.” While it offers nothing game changing for either its franchise or its genre, it remembers what’s best about both and uses that to craft a fine work of studio horror that does its job and does it well.
Initially set 24 years prior to the events in Annabelle, the film explores the creation of the doll by toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), who lives in an old farmhouse with his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), and daughter Annabelle a.k.a. Bee (Samara Lee). The happy overture is short lived, however, due to the tragic death of their beloved Bee. We then jump to 12 years later, where the Sam and Esther have opened their home to a small group of orphans from a recently closed orphanage. Soon they learn that something is not right, and that an evil lurks with the halls of their new home.
That’s why we’re here, of course, and the film does a good job at delivering what we ordered. This is largely a credit to director David F. Sandberg, a man who knows how to build tension with simple set ups and has cut his teeth on a series of effective and terrifying shorts, including Lights Out, which stands as one of the creepier horror shorts in recent years. Annabelle Creation is only his second work as a feature director (following the ultimately unsatisfying extension of Lights Out from last year) but you can already see the burgeoning buds of mastery in his craft.
A few notable shots aside, Annabelle Creation relies mostly on practical and in camera effects to achieve its haunting atmosphere giving both his cast and his audience something real to react to. While mostly this is as simple as chairs being thrown across the room, the simplicity of the effects allows for a creeping tension to build throughout the film, which is mostly paid off by the climax.
You could decry an overreliance on jump scares, and that would be valid. Jump scares tend to be cheap shortcuts to actual horror, and those who’ve become accustomed to the headier horror of recent years will find plenty to roll their eyes at here. But those are the trappings of the genre, and they work here as an effective way to have fun with the audience. It helps that many of the jump scares utilized come packaged with genuinely creepy imagery, giving them a nice one-two combo to elicit fright.
What’s most surprising is how well the horror is handled by the film’s young cast, especially Lee whose brief moments on screen are shockingly terrifying. We find out more about Annabelle and the demon attached to her that was mentioned in the previous movie, and the young actress pulls it off nicely. Beyond her, much of the film is focused on the young Janice (Talitha Bateman), who suffers from the after effects of polio, and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Janice makes for an easy target for the haunting demon, and Bateman handles the job with an acumen of an actress two or three times her age.
Many of the other characters are useless to the plot, serving only as a device to pad the film with extra moments of shock and terror, but even the padding in Annabelle Creation works well enough. It’s pointless, but no more pointless than the movie itself, and somehow pointless seems to be the sweet spot in which the film works best.
Overall, Annabelle Creation is the best entry into this bizarre shared universe since The Conjuring. It may not bring anything new to the table, but what it brings is everything you enjoy taking in with these movies. It’s the kind of movie best enjoyed in a theater with an audience full of likeminded people, where half of them scream and the other half laughs and everybody has a good time. It may be the fast food burger of modern horror, but every so often that greasy, unnecessary glop is satiating in all the right ways.
Annabelle Creation is now playing in theaters everywhere.