2017 | rated R | starring Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPalgia, Miranda Otto | directed by David F. Sandberg | 1h 49mins |

Studio Pitch: That opening doll vignette in The Conjuring was so great, if we keep making prequels eventually one of them might hit that mark again.

{Spoiler Warning}

Horror – more than any other movie genre – can sink or swim based on how expertly in tune with the visual language of film it’s director has. Horror movie stories don’t work as well in any other medium as they do in movies and something can swing wildly from being laughable to terrifying with the wrong ambient light or sound effect. It requires a precarious balance in tone and what is shown in (and around) each frame that often falls square on the shoulders of the director. Recently we’ve seen two very stark examples of this where the same, or similar material was put in very different hands with very different results.

The first was the studio horror film Ouija, put together like a forgettable, generic PG-13 dead-teenager-movie by special effects coordinator Stiles White. That movie was easily overshadowed by it’s prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil, helmed by Mike Flannigan, who had already successfully showed a knowledge of the mechanics of horror with the killer mirror movie Oculus and Hush. The 2nd is Annabelle a largely disappointing cash-grab prequel of The Conjuring directed by cinematographer John Leonetti (who previously helmed Mortal Kombat Annihilation in 1997 and… oh my God, this summer’s unintentionally hilarious Wish Upon). That movie and everything else mentioned in this paragraph gets blown away by Lights Out director David F. Sandberg’s spin on the property with Annabelle: Creation, an infinitely more fun spook-house thriller than it ever needed to be by a filmmaker who seems to really love the genre. It makes a night and day difference.

A prequel to a prequel based on a 5 minute opening vignette in The Conjuring, Creation opens with the making of the Annabelle doll itself; a life-sized child porcelain figure whose creepy plastered smile and cracked face simply needs to be photographed in the right light to ring a chill up the spine. The story involves a tragic accident and grieving parents who open up their home to a group of orphan girls including Janice (Talitha Bateman), crippled by polio, Linda (Origin of Evil’s Lulu Wilson) and some older mean girls who ostracize Janice and Linda for being weird and different. Separated and weakened, the two friends are targeted by a spirit kept away in a locked room the girls are specifically instructed to never go in, but do so almost immediately anyway.

Annabelle Creation is a simple ghost story at heart, hollow and climaxing with a big explanatory monologue that explains exactly what you’d assume happens in the film without twists or surprises – but Sandberg really works the mechanics of horror design here and makes the little details work. First of all, the majority of the action never leaves the farmhouse, with beautiful roll hills behind it separating the home from the rest of society like an island. Sandberg finds time to do a simple but often ignored thing: allow the girls, and us, to tour the house early and set up the movie’s little world.  Janice’s automated stair chair, a dumbwaiter, a scarecrow in the barn, a dollhouse and the ever-present sound of the bed-ridden matriarch ringing a bell for help (that’s Miranda Otto, behind a full Phantom of the Opera mask most of the film). He sets up every door, device and passageway in the house before turning the place into a sandbox of demonic toys and giving everything a structurally perfect payoff.

The name actors in the film, Anthony LaPalgia and Otto, are given grunting one-note grieving parent roles but Bateman and Wilson as the two young leads are terrific and real where an inferior production would have settled for cute kid antics. The movie doesn’t really treat them like kids, but puts the camera on their level and views the world from there. It’s the best set of young performances and look at horror from a child’s perspective since Isabella Furhmann in Orphan. As things onscreen start to spin out into third act craziness, the girls continue to carry the film.

Sandberg stages a number of terrific horror set pieces here from Janice’s stair chair tensely creeping toward darkness to a terrific late film barn attack where Sandberg goes back to his Lights Out motif, now in a higher gear. Things also kick off pretty quickly, with the script showing it’s demonic hand early; instead of following the usual studio film formula padding and having our main characters walk around endless empty hallways at night and suffer dream fake-outs before any of the real action starts. There are, in fact, almost no false alarm jumps in Creation. Nothing is ever a dream or just the cat. It’s surreal how committed this movie is to delivering substantive jolts, not taking them back and building off them.

Now there is the matter of the 3rd act, where Sandberg’s measured hand with constructing the set pieces starts to slip away from him. Things start paying off left and right wonderfully, but it appears that the more powerful the demon is the more omnipresent it also is, jumping around from different forms and different conduits, sometimes connected to the Annabelle doll, sometimes in a black monster form bearing teeth, sometimes possessing a knife-wielding human, sometimes just in the air popping light bulbs or emitting that great bone-cracking sound effect from the shadows. It’s a chaotic finale where anything goes and we get so turned around it deflates the tension. Save for an occasional static gore shot the movie barely indulges in it’s R rating and – even worse – refuses to kill off meaningful characters, leading to menacing set-ups with no punch-line deaths.

Then, weirdly, after so much thought and care, Sandberg seems at a loss as to how to bring it all in for a landing. It segues from epilogue after epilogue button eventually landing on a tie-back to 2014’s Annabelle. Why this movie would want to associate itself with such an inferior film only makes sense at the studio intervention level. Because now nothing can just be a sequel. People make fun of horror movies with 8 sequels. Everything is a connected “Universe” and this movie has to be apart of The Conjuring-verse or whatever. Hey, look it’s The Nun.  

Annabelle: Creation isn’t The Omen, but Sandberg knows that. He plays with what he has with a sly wink and keen awareness of the camp factor around a killer doll movie, stitching together a first-rate haunted house ride where things jump out in the dark. Its lighter weight but still in the same vibe James Wan  set with the Conjuring series and – it’s a lot of fun.