Forget The Dark Universe. The best horror franchise currently in play belongs to James Wan, whose “The Conjuring” spin-offs delivers a world filled with nightmarish creatures like The Crooked Man, The Nun, and a doll that could make even Chucky’s blood run cold. Welcome to the frightful terrain of “Annabelle,” now equipped with a whole movie to provide its backstory.
Although 2014’s “Annabelle” did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, reviews were less than stellar. But the surprise success of Mike Flanagan’s “Ouija: Origin of Evil” offered a solution that was likely too good to ignore: hire an indie horror director to create a prequel-sequel set in the past. And so, the hideously scary doll of the first installment was reborn, this time with “Lights Out” director David F. Sandberg behind the camera.
The premise of “Annabelle: Creation” is simple enough to be effective. The Mullins live in a secluded country home with their only daughter, Bee (Samara Lee). Her father, Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia), is a doll-maker, and the film’s opening sequence is dedicated to watching him carefully craft a limited edition run of a very special doll. You know which one: Annabelle is carefully tucked inside of a box in a pristine white dress, and although she’s a brand new model, her face still just as horrifying as her first appearance in “The Conjuring.” Annabelle is the very first doll of her kind, and as it soon turns out, the very last.
On their way home from church, Bee is involved in an brutal automobile accident that rivals David Lynch’s unflinching episode in the “Twin Peaks” revival. Wracked with grief, Samuel and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto) live in seclusion, until 12 years later, when they finally open their doors to a small group of orphaned girls and their nun chaperone, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman).
Among the girls are two scrappy best friends Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman). After a bout with polio, Janice relies on a leg brace and cain to get around, but luckily the house’s large staircase is equipped with an ornate motorized chair, one that requires the rider to be strapped in before it will move up or down — you know where this is going.
Janice is warned to stay out of the locked bedroom of Bee, but she’s lured in anyway; this time, the door in unlocked. Inside, Bee’s room is untouched and filled with a delightful array of toys, including a huge, handmade doll house that’s a miniature version of the Mullins’ place. As Janice reaches inside, a tiny closet door opens revealing a key. After several glances back and forth between the doll house and Bee’s bedroom closet, it becomes painfully obvious that the key will open the larger closet, and Janice doesn’t waste any time. Inside, Annabelle sits on a small chair, surrounded by torn pages from the Bible, and a painted cross. It’s a terrifying image, one that reasonably leaves Janet in a very creeped-out state. She tries to lock the doll back up, but in case it wasn’t obvious, she’s missed her chance.
And so we arrive at the largest problem with “Annabelle: Creation”: its heavy reliance on recognizable horror tropes: jump scares, flickering lights, sinister things hiding in dark shadows, peeking through key holes to see Annabelle sitting in a moving rocking chair. The usual drill. As with the original film, Janice is a ripe target for possession.
Sandberg unabashedly wears his influences on his sleeve, and tucked inside are very obvious references to Wan’s “Insidious,” “Silence of the Lambs,” and, perhaps most surprisingly, 1973’s “Messiah of Evil.” But while these nods will certainly thrill horror fans, they don’t really provide anything original. To his credit, Wan was able to breathe new life into old tropes, like shocking appearance of the demon face behind Patrick Wilson in “Insidious” or the basement clapping scene in “The Conjuring.” Sandberg’s homages feel like carbon copies that need to be paired with a few cheap scares in order to stick the landing.
Still, “Annabelle: Creation” does offer several shocking moments, and manages to deliver some truly eerie imagery. Even when you can spot the gimmicks from a mile away, “Annabelle: Creation” hits the horror notes it’s aiming for.
Most of that can be chalked up to its titular mini-monster. The audience never sees the doll move, but she haunts every frame she is in, staring ominously behind glass eyes and a painted grimace. Her lingering presence unsettles everything, and keeps the audience on edge.
“Annabelle: Creation” falters towards the end with a predictable prologue that tidies up the sequel and original with a tidy bow that might make logical sense, but which lessens the impact of the story’s ending but also allows the franchise, should it be greenlit for another sequel, to move forward in the future. The film also nods to the “Conjuring” universe’s next film, “The Nun,” and hints at the possibility of another time jump to a new place filled with its own vast amount of horror lore: Romania.
Until we get there, “Annabelle: Creation” will do. It might not be another “Conjuring,” but the new movie manages to channel the appeal of the franchise well enough to keep its blood flowing until the next installment.