Film Review: Annabelle: Creation

Another evil-doll spinoff of 'The Conjuring' defined by tepid, formulaic jump-scare tactics.
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There are few things less terrifying than a silent, inanimate children’s doll (no matter its creepy expression), so Annabelle: Creation begins from an inherent disadvantage. That it then takes itself deadly seriously doesn’t aid it in its quest to generate chills from an inert plaything—not to mention robbing it of any opportunity for the type of campy humor that energized the most hallowed entry in the killer-toy subgenre, Child’s Play. In fairness to David F. Sandberg’s going-through-familiar-motions film, it’s still superior in every way to 2014’s Annabelle. Unfortunately, given that predecessor’s frightlessness, making such an assessment is little more than damning with faint praise.

Annabelle: Creation follows the strategy established by last year’s better-by-a-country-mile Ouija: Origin of Evil, another period-piece prequel made by a horror director (in that case, Mike Flanagan) who’d shown far more promise than the artist who’d helmed the series’ initial offering. And if Sandberg brings anything to this project—the first of many upcoming spinoffs of The Conjuring—it’s the knack for exploiting darkness he first exhibited in his feature debut, Lights Out. Here, pitch-black corridors and void-like spaces are omnipresent, suffocating characters and housing unholy evils which, after long stretches of eerie silence, emerge from their gloomy hiding places with nerve-rattling bangs and shrieks. Working with cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, Sandberg proves adept at working the contrast between light and shadow, even if his jolt-scare tactics quickly prove predictable.

There’s even less surprise to his story (penned by Gary Dauberman), which begins with rural dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia, looking exhausted by this standard-issue material) and wife Esther (Miranda Otto) losing their beloved daughter “Bee” (Samara Lee) in a tragic roadside accident. Twelve years later, they’re taking in a group of orphan girls overseen by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), and led—narratively speaking—by best friends Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman), the latter of whom walks with a leg cast and a cane due to polio. While the teens act like teens and Esther hides in her bedroom (wearing a Phantom of the Opera-style mask due to a mysterious calamity), Janice quickly finds herself venturing into the supposed-to-be-locked bedroom of Bee, where she’s coaxed by a childish specter into unlocking a hidden closet that’s plastered with Bible pages and houses—you guessed it!—malevolent doll Annabelle.

Demonic possession, satanic creatures and evil scarecrows all factor into the eventual, generally bloodless R-rated action, which boasts a couple of clever misdirections but otherwise fails to make its malevolent figurine more than a tepid spooky presence. That’s partly due to the fact that Annabelle doesn’t actually do anything; she’s just a lifeless conduit for other, far more generic ghouls. And it’s also because, at every turn, one always feels two steps ahead of the story and its characters, prepared well in advance for each instance of supernatural scariness. Mostly, though, it’s simply because Creation is so drearily formulaic, replete with a gaggle of clichéd kids who rarely seem to be in anything more than faux-danger. Horror doesn’t get much more paint-by-numbers.

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