5 out of 10
Lulu Wilson as Linda
Talitha Bateman as Janice
Stephanie Sigman as Sister Charlotte
Anthony LaPaglia as Samuel Mullins
Miranda Otto as Esther Mullins
Philippa Coulthard as Nancy
Grace Fulton as Carol
Lou Lou Safran as Tierney
Tayler Buck as Kate
Samara Lee as Annabelle “Bee” Mullins
Mark Bramhall as Father Massey
Adam Bartley as Officer Fuller
Alicia Vela-Bailey as Evil Mrs. Mullins
Joseph Bishara as Annabelle Demon
Annabelle Wallis as Mia Form
Directed by David F. Sandberg
Tonally effective but without stakes or costs, Annabelle: Creation is a textbook example of the modern franchise thriller. From stem to stern it has everything needed to scare an audience, but is incapable of actually doing so. Like many of this year’s sequels, there is probably no one person or group responsible for Annabelle: Creation’s inadequacies. Like the poor orphan girls at the center of horror producer James Wan’s (the Saw series) expanding horror mythology, Annabelle: Creation suffers from the actions of a group of people who have made something because they wanted to with no thought what to do with it once it was here.
In Annabelle: Creation’s case, they are the actions of rural doll maker Sam Mullins and his wife (LaPaglia and Otto in possibly the most thankless roles of their careers) after suffering the loss of their daughter, Annabelle. When a mysterious force they believe to be Annabelle arrives in their farmhouse, they can’t resist the urge to accept it, only to discover they’ve let something monstrous in. And then to compound their foolishness, they agree to give their home over to the Catholic Church to serve as an orphanage for a group of girls who have nowhere else to go and no idea what they’re about to walk into.
In a more existential sense, it’s because of the continued success of Wan’s Conjuring series (Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to the prequel of the first Conjuring) and Wan’s strange preoccupation with evil dolls. [Seriously, look through Wan’s filmography for how many of his movies involve evil dolls in some way]. Four films in (and with at least one more Conjuring and another spin-off coming our way) the series has been a spectacular commercial success, which means new content has to be created and now before audience hunger for this new thing wears off and moves on to its next victim. Like the monster in the farmhouse, it must be served up a continuous banquet of the souls of the unwary.
The mercenary, somewhat cynical nature of Creation’s creation is not a bad thing and in some ways a plus. A prequel of a prequel, it is so far removed the original that there is little need to try and force it into a complex mythology (there are attempts to do so anyway, but they are hardly the element which hobbles Annabelle: Creation). It is in many ways a blank canvas for director David Sandberg (Lights Out) to paint whatever he wants on it.
This can work: Ouija: Origins managed it to great effect (and against considerable odds) last year with very similar source material at hand. The big difference is a willingness to embrace tragedy, which Annabelle: Creation simply lacks. It wants to frighten you, but not scare you, and that lack of commitment ultimately cuts the legs out from under everyone involved.
Tucked away amongst the orphan girls are young Linda (Wilson), partly crippled after a bout of polio, and her best friend Janice (Bateman) who have sworn to stick together no matter what they may face. For Janice that means trying to save her friend from being possessed by the demonic spirit living in the farmhouse. Wilson and Bateman are by far the best part about Creation and Sandberg scores brutally effective performances from them, particularly Janice who has to confront situations which would make grown men run in fear. While Linda’s experience strongly parallels another Linda from another very famous horror film, Sandberg and Wilson pull it off without feeling like copycats and for a moment offering up the sadness which must be a part of actual dread.
But Linda and Janice aren’t the only ones in the farmhouse, they’re surrounded by the rest of the orphanage who also must periodically flee from strange things following them in the dark… only for the lights to inevitably come on. Sandberg has a very clear mastery of the pace and tone horror needs to work. He calmly builds tension with slow reveals of opening doors and moving objects, often happening behind the characters where they can’t see it but we can. Nothing engenders edge-of-the-seat thrills like dramatic irony, and the first half of Creation is filled with it.
Unfortunately so is the second half. Rather than building to an escapable climax, Sandberg keeps putting off resolution and putting of resolution, using the same elements over and over which, by minute 75, have worn a bit thin. Worse, they never result in real cost – the characters keep facing almost conflicts which then vanish; most of them are the same at the end of the film as they were at the beginning.
Annabelle: Creation is a two-hour nothing burger, partly because someone decided the first film did well enough to deserve a sequel and partly through the race to fill that two hours no one seems to have asked why they were doing it. There is a lot of skill on display; everyone involved in this film is most certainly capable of making a fantastic horror film even as a sequel. But this isn’t it.