Hollywood’s persistent march toward franchise films over the last decade or so has curiously sidestepped the horror genre. For the most part. The ‘80s countless Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween sequels (every second one with some kind of dubious subtitle à la “The Final Chapter”) feel like a distant memory. Unless you’re James Wan, who’s somehow spawned three separate horror franchises: the recently-rebooted Saw films, the Insidious series and, of course, the multi-pronged Conjuring universe.
You’d be forgiven for approaching the last outcropping of that universe, Annabelle: Creation, with some degree of trepidation. This is the second spin-off to ‘star’ the eponymous creepy doll (who had a prominent cameo in the original Conjuring); the first, 2014’s Annabelle, was a derivative, dreary mess more boring than frightening. Thankfully, Creation steers the teetering ship aright with a confidently composed haunted house film. It’s nothing particularly original, sure, but neither was The Conjuring. What it does deliver is judiciously-executed scares and a pervasive atmosphere of dread.
As the title suggested, Creation is a prequel to Annabelle – itself already a prequel to The Conjuring – that literally begins with the crafting of its titular doll. The domestic bliss of the dollmaker, Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) is brutally interrupted by the accidental death of their infant daughter. We snap forward some dozen years – to sometime in the ‘50s, I expect – to witness the arrival of a surprisingly chipper young nun (Stephanie Sigman) overseeing a busload of orphaned girls. They’ve been welcomed into the Mullins household by the now taciturn Samuel and his unseen, apparently disfigured wife.
As you’d expect, shit gets creepy real fast.
Despite having some half-dozen pubescent girls to choose from, the screenplay largely centres on best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson, who you might recognise from recent horror prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil). Night after night goes by with a softly escalating series of scares, beginning with Janice’s discovery of the doll in the Mullins’ dead daughter’s bedroom, and culminating in some truly devilish shenanigans (much like the other Conjuring films, Annabelle: Creation adamantly situates itself in the tradition of the Catholic faith).
The scares are consistently well-executed; crafted with pace and patience while making the most of its 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Where most haunted house films tend to fall in a heap halfway through by dissipating any sense of ambiguity – and, hence, fear – director David F. Sandberg manages to consistently escalate the stakes while also amping up the tension. The film’s final act is scarier than most of what preceded it, which is unicorn-level rarity when it comes to this subgenre. The best choice here is the setting – like The Conjuring (and unlike both Annabelle and The Conjuring 2), events transpire in a sprawling old American house. The size and inherent creepiness of the house recalls that sense of wandering a dark house at night as a child, where every creak and shadow represents something unspeakably terrifying.
As a scare-delivery service, then, Annabelle: Creation is top notch. But there’s a couple things that keep it from quite living up to the standard set by The Conjuring (or even Ouija: Origin of Evil). I can forgive the silly cameo of the ‘demon nun’ from The Conjuring 2 (they’ve got a sequel to set up), but the lack of substantial characterisation granted to the film’s adults saps it of the domestic tension running through the pair of films I just mentioned. After the prologue, Samuel and Esther remain ciphers; if executed well, that could’ve either stood in for the mysteries of grief or the opacity of our parents growing up, but in practice they play more like plot devices despite some admirable acting. Sigman’s sister is similarly misused; she’s too sympathetic, but perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of the film’s pro-Catholic slant. (Personally, I would’ve loved her character to be a stern nun that the children are afraid to report their supernatural experiences to, but maybe that’s just me.)
Without that domestic tension, Annabelle: Creation is merely a vehicle for scares, lacking any subtext about distrust or fear of the future or any of the tendrils running through Wan’s Conjuring films. Good haunted house films tap into a childhood fear of the dark, true, but truly great ones extrapolate those fears into something more resonant. Still, Annebelle: Creation is an excellent vehicle for scares, if that’s what you’re looking for – and honestly, that’s pretty much what I was hoping from the film. Not quite a ‘great’ example of the haunted house subgenre, but a sterling example nonetheless.