Annabelle: Creation is the latest in the ever-growing Conjuring universe, and it aims to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how that damn doll went from merely creepy to pure evil. This makes for plenty of frights, and if the movie hits a few too many predictable notes, at least it makes you shudder along the way.
Director David F. Sandberg made his mark with the unsettling fear-the-dark horror tale Lights Out—he directed both the short and its feature-length expansion—so he’s right in his wheelhouse here, working with a ghoul that does most of its dirty work in the dead of night. The setting of Creation couldn’t be more ideal for a horror movie: a rambling old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, overstuffed with creaky doors, nooks and crannies (including a dumbwaiter), lights that flicker at inopportune moments, and multiple forbidden rooms. The property also contains a dusty barn full of things that would give Pumpkinhead nightmares and an old well straight out of The Ring. Its occupants are Mr. and Mrs. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto), a gloomy middle-aged couple still mourning the loss of their little girl 12 years prior and who are still feeling guilty about turning to black magic as a coping mechanism. In other words—what a perfect place to dump a group of spunky orphans. It’s like Annie, except R-rated and with screams of terror instead of singing.
Even before the movie starts, we know exactly what’s going to happen, all of it emanating from our old pal Annabelle, who never speaks but has one of cinema’s most chilling thousand-yard stares. It’s a challenge, then, for Sandberg (working from a script by Gary Dauberman, who also wrote the first Annabelle movie and co-wrote upcoming Conjuring 2 spin-off The Nun) to enhance the expected story beats with stuff we aren’t expecting—or at least add an original spin to scares we’ve seen before, like a monster lurking under the bed. He succeeds for the most part, ratcheting up the dread along with the jumps, and he’s helped along by an effective young cast. The standouts are Lulu Wilson (Ouija: Origin of Evil) as Linda and Talitha Bateman as Janice, BFFs whose deep bond survives Jan’s battle with polio, but is severely tested when a demon enters the mix.
Most of Annabelle: Creation involves imperiling little girls, which is a go-to for the Conjuring films and for horror films in general, really, but it’s particularly heart-wrenching to see a grinning, long-clawed devil target an innocent orphan in a wheelchair. (“I think it was a mistake bringing the girls here,” a character remarks at one point, way too late in the film for anything to be done about it. Yeah, ya think?) At least the kids in both Conjuring films had the demon-busting Lorraine and Ed Warren to call upon for help; there’s nobody rushing to save Annabelle’s victims, because quite obviously Annabelle has to retain her bad juju so she can appear in all the films that take place after this one.
Speaking of all those other Conjuring films, the last scene of Creation very specifically explains how it ties to the first Annabelle film, which makes sense, since you might be kind of left wondering otherwise. A far more forced connection is made when the orphans’ guardian, a kind-hearted young nun played by Stephanie Sigman, shows Mr. Mullins a photo of her buddies from the convent, and... hello, who’s this? Our attention is specifically drawn to a weird figure looming in the background—quite obviously Valak, the evil nun from Conjuring 2 and The Nun—and then remarked upon, just in case the audience is too dumb to notice.
At this point, it’s hard not to watch any Conjuring-related movie without constantly wondering which sinister character or cursed object will be getting its own standalone film next. Hey, if the Crooked Man from Conjuring 2 can get his own movie, my money’s on either Creation’s haunted record player or its exaggeratedly ghoulish scarecrow. Keep setting these films in old houses occupied by sentimental collectors, and the Conjuring universe could, conceivably, spin out longer than the Friday the 13th and a Nightmare on Elm Street series combined. And would that really be the worst thing that ever happened to horror? If the films themselves don’t exactly innovate on the genre, at least they’re well-made—and, so far at least, have been consistently spooky and entertaining.
Annabelle: Creation is out August 11.