Annabelle: Creation might be the first ever prequel to a prequel. The bulk of the film takes place 12 years before the events of Annabelle (2014), which was itself a prelude to the goings-on in 2013's The Conjuring, and it fills a bunch of the gaps in the origin story of that creepy porcelain doll. Finally, one of cinema's greatest mysteries has been put to bed.
You'll recall (or maybe you won't) that anyone unfortunate enough to get their hands on Annabelle the doll falls upon particularly hard times. The poor woman in the last Annabelle movie was stabbed by a devil-worshipping cult member, menaced by an unseen presence in an elevator and nearly burned to death in a house fire sparked by rogue Jiffy Pop, all in the span of 100 minutes. Because each new installment in a horror franchise needs to amp up the intensity, the doll — or rather, the demonic force it hosts — does even more terrorizing here, and the thing is so unpleasant to look at that you start to wonder how no one tossed it into an incinerator long before it became a conduit for unspeakable evil.
In all of these films, the doll has proven itself to be a most dynamic performer, with a smirking expression that seems to vary in degrees of malevolence depending on the angle from which it's photographed. In Annabelle: Creation, the doll is really working overtime, grinning sinisterly and moving on its own when no one's looking and getting everybody killed. At one point, it's tossed down a well, only to pop up again in another location just moments later. That's commitment.
The story this time, for anyone who cares, is set in the mid-1950s and involves six young girls who are left homeless when their orphanage closes. Along with the idealistic nun (Stephanie Sigman) looking after them, they're invited to stay in the sun-dappled country home of a kindly dollmaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his ailing wife (Miranda Otto), who never leaves her room and wears a face mask that resembles one of her husband's wares.
For such a seemingly nice man, LaPaglia sure does produce some awfully unsettling-looking dolls, one of which is the fabled Annabelle, named for his daughter who was struck and killed by a car so many years ago. The dead girl's room (as they always are in movies like this) is kept exactly as it was when she was alive, and it's strictly off-limits. That doesn't stop the most curious orphan (Talitha Bateman), in a leg brace because of polio, who finds everyone's favorite devilish doll locked away in a closet plastered with pages from the Bible.
Little good that did, because soon Annabelle is on the loose and wreaking havoc on the house's young tenants. This is further compounded by the fact that this countryside property contains the kinds of hazards designed specifically to entrap children — the drafty dumbwaiter, the hidden room under the stairs, the corridor that appears to grow longer the darker it gets, doors that slam shut on their own, the aforementioned well. There's also a glowering scarecrow that comes to life at the most inopportune time.
Annabelle: Creation, like the earlier films in the Conjuring universe, looks quite good. This is only the second feature from director David F. Sandberg, whose debut was the low-budget ghost story Lights Out, and he has an eye for inventive visual compositions, allowing threats to sneakily introduce themselves in unexpected parts of the frame. And the house where much of the film is set has plenty of personality, as pastoral as a Norman Rockwell painting by day and a gloomy, gothic hellscape by night.
But visuals can only get you so far, and once the film sets up its premise, it quickly settles into a familiar pattern. In one scene after another, a character hears a strange noise in another room and goes off to investigate, creeping oh-so-slowly toward it. The music swells to a deafening level on the soundtrack and then suddenly decrescendos into silence, which is precisely when — BAM! — something pops out from the shadows and everyone in the audience jumps.
It reduces horror down to an almost Pavlovian exercise, and I found it tiresome. ♦