Starring: Miranda Otto, Anthony LaPaglia, Talitha Bateman
Director: David F Sandberg
Running Time: 109 mins
Synopsis: Introduced in The Conjuring, before featuring in her own standalone film, creepy doll Annabelle now gets an origin story. Several years after losing their daughter in a tragic accident, toy maker Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Otto) welcome a nun and her 6 orphaned girls into their farmstead. Terror commences when one of the girls finds the titular doll, whom has malevolent plans for them all.
Usually when a modern mainstream horror film announces sequels or god forbid spin-offs the world waits for something creatively bankrupt, driven by money not artistic integrity. You only have to look at the Saw series, and the arrival this October of another instalment, for an example of that. The Conjuring, however, felt a little different. I’d argue that both the original demonic possession film and its sequel are the two best mainstream horror films of the last decade, helped immeasurably by the astute control of director James Wan (coincidentally the man responsible for the first Saw, but whom swiftly departed the franchise afterwards). Masterful examples of sustained tension, with hugely effective scares and most importantly characters you cared for. They also sketched out a horror universe that felt rich in mythology and intriguing movie monsters. Sadly the first spin off centring on demonic doll Annabelle came off painfully generic with none of the artful care that so marked out Wan’s efforts.
Savvy enough to realise their error and keen to make sure the planned Conjuring filmic universe (The Nun and The Crooked Man are on the way) gets off on a stronger foot, Wan has snapped up David F Sandberg (Lights Out) to tackle another go around for the fucked up toy doll. Sandberg has evidently studied at the foot of Wan (Lights Out was produced by the Saw helmer) crafting a story rife with big scares, characterful dimensions and a classiness that elevates it above sheer genre exercises. Set decades before the first Annabelle film, Creation opens with a warmly shot gently charming glimpse at the Mullins family. Patriarch Sam makes toy dolls (you can see where this is going) inspired by his love for young daughter Annabelle, whom he and wife Esther love deeply. A tragic and starkly shot car accident leaves them bereaved of their young child. Most horror films like to begin with a big scare, to set their stall out early and grab the predominately attention deficit audience as soon as. Creation has loftier plans than this. Focusing on the suffering this family has experienced and allowing the later scenes of parental madness to become far more relateable.
12 years ahead we meet 6 orphaned girls and their guardian, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman, a little static in delivery but an affectionate presence) as they are taken in by the Mullins. Only we never see Esther, years of grief and an unspecified illness leave her shut away. A bell she uses to call for help is delightfully utilised in several scare moments. She does make an appearance later on, Miranda Otto conveying the damage and desperation such a loss instils in someone whilst also coming off as a Phantom of the Opera offshoot thanks to the facial mask that covers a traumatic injury. Anthony LaPaglia plays her husband Sam, and sells the cold emotional distance we believe is down to grief but may in fact be a sign of something much more malevolent. Sandberg takes his time here, steadily building tension and similar to Wan’s floating camera shots, glides around the Mullins’ homestead establishing geography in preparation for the chaos to come. Of the 6 girls time is most spent on crippled Janice. Riddled with polio leaving her reliant on a leg brace and crutch. She is shy, sombre and lonely. Talitha Bateman gives a mature nuanced performance, facing immense horrors with a vulnerable determination that you will for nothing bad to happen to her.
Of course being physically weaker and mentally more fragile the demonic presence that exists seeks her out first. Similar to The Conjuring, the scares here start off small. A creepy figure in the corner here, a door silently opening there, until the entity reveals itself with perhaps a little too much CGI. Scares are better when the monster remains more elusive. Shrewdly Sandberg never feels tempted to blow Annabelle out of proportion, the doll remains a doll throughout. Her static nature and dead eyes conveying far more dread than if the filmmakers had opted to turn her into the next Chucky.
In some respects the film perhaps hews far too closely to The Conjuring model. Establishing a mystery, building its scares, before a character gets possessed, turns evil and then the shit hits the fan. Sandberg manages to drop in a few twists of his own, such as a stronger focus on graphic violence, and the unexpected culling of characters which The Conjuring films actively avoided. But for the most part he tries to make sure Creation can sit alongside those two films, right down to the creepy use of old timey music (is there anything creepier in modern horror than the aural nightmare of the soundscape of times gone past) and quite frankly beautiful shot composition. There is an almost classical feel to the landscape shots Sandberg uses here.
As to be expected the final act is a cacophony of haunted house histrionics, audience pleasing scares doing away with the subtlety of the opening acts. This is the way it is with horror but at least Creation refreshingly avoids a crazy CGI-augmented finale in favour of in camera effects and charged confrontations. The final moments cleverly lead into the first spin-off film, even though they unhelpfully remind us of the weaknesses of that picture. Nothing distracts from just how good a Friday night horror flick this is. Crafted with passion, unlike a lot of mainstream thrill-fests Creation actually cares about its protagonists, and a controlled pace. It may not break the mould of what cinematic horror can do, but it realises that the best way to scare people is to be patient and let the fear do its job. Annabelle: Creation proves that The Conjuring universe can become something to celebrate as opposed to running away from.
Verdict: Annabelle: Creation is finely tuned horror. Building its characters up with patience and constructing truly effective scares, whilst further exploring a mythology of real depth.