In cinematic terms, the prequel is akin to narrative suicide. There is no way to create worthwhile stakes if the audience already knows the characters are going to make it out alright. Annabelle: Creation escapes this prequel trap in two ways: First, each film in the franchise features a different family for the audience to build a relationship with. And second, Creation is centered around its villain, not the heroes. Yes, it’s apparent that the creepy doll will return, but what will happen to the Mullins?
Let’s back up for a second. Annabelle: Creation is a pivotal film because it has to respond to a massive hit and a terrible flop. In 2013, James Wan (Saw, Furious 7) directed The Conjuring, a critical and commercial darling that capitalized on a resurgence in paranormal horror. I thought it was just okay. Annabelle was the first spin-off in what was to become a Conjuring extended universe. Starring, fittingly enough, Annabelle Wallis and directed by John Leonetti (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation), it was one of the worst movies I saw in 2014. It still made a lot of money, but something had to be done to rectify the franchise.
All this time, James Wan has been mentoring and inspiring a new generation of horror filmmakers. He produced Lights Out, David Sandberg’s first feature film that went on to be my runner-up for “Least Memorable Film of 2016” (Deep Horizon won that title). But Wan still liked it enough to give Sandberg the reins to Annabelle: Creation. You could say that my expectations were low. However, Sandberg rose to the challenge.
Anthony LaPaglia plays Samuel Mullins, an off-brand Liam Neeson type who spends the opening sequence painstakingly crafting the titular Annabelle doll. He has a loving relationship with his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Bee (Samara Lee). But one day, tragedy strikes. While Samuel tries to fix the family car, Bee chases after a spare part, runs into incoming traffic, gets hit and dies. These lazy-but-effective choices play out in the rest of the film. Rational decisions are regularly swapped for cinematic atmosphere in Gary Dauberman’s screenplay, but even without sustained logic I found myself watching between my fingers.
What is it with paranormal horror and young girls? The Conjuring has a family of five daughters, and Annabelle: Creation ups it to six. Maybe it has something to do with religious purity, or maybe it’s just a ‘70s trope that stuck with the franchise (Wan loves the ‘70s). Janice (Talitha Bateman) is the child in focus. She is recovering from polio and the screenplay exploits this as a narrative tool (gross). She and her sister, Lulu Wilson (now practically a figurehead of the genre after starring in Ouija: Origin of Evil) are excluded from the other children (Philippa Coulthard, Grace Fulton, Taylor Buck and Lou Lou Safran) in a traveling orphanage. The Mullins give the group a new home, and Janice immediately ignores all directions and unleashes Annabelle.
After Bee died, the Mullins were convinced that her spirit had come back, and they allowed it to inhabit the Annabelle doll. Big mistake. Annabelle, with her ragtag group of demons (including a Nun and a haunted scarecrow, both to receive the spin-off treatment soon) start taunting the children. This is par for the course, but paranormal horror demons are notoriously ineffective. When will they take action? Very quickly, it turns out. While the Annabelle demons won’t win any productivity awards, they do create the stakes that made me fear for the characters. I haven’t felt that in a while.
There is no convoluted backstory behind the evil, like in Insidious. And the film doesn’t threaten the audience to repent because “Demons Are Real And They Will Haunt You Too”, a la The Conjuring. Annabelle: Creation keeps things simple, and the charm is in its intimacy. Once the children arrive at the Mullin house, that becomes the single location for the rest of the film. A tracking shot introduces us not only to the children, but to each room in the house, giving the audience a grasp on the setting. A lack of spatial awareness was one of my issues with Lights Out, but it’s no problem here.
For years now, I’ve been saying that paranormal horror is on its last legs. Not much has impressed me in that time, but Annabelle: Creation shook me in a way that I couldn’t have expected. I don’t yet feel that Sandberg is an innovator — much of his style still feels derivative of Wan’s — but he showcases a certain restraint and control that has been missing for so long. And whenever Creation takes a break from the standard genre beats, it manages to create something spectacular.