David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation proves that history does, in fact, repeat itself – and not by following in John R. Leonetti’s footsteps (director of Annabelle). Sandberg takes a page out of Ouija: Origin Of Evil‘s playbook, going the period route to recalibrate via prequel beginnings. Warner Brothers trusted their up-and-coming horror workhorse to salvage Annabelle’s name, much like how Mike Flannagan made Ouija relevant again. In every sense of the phrase, Annabelle Creation is 2017’s Ouija: The Original Of Evil. Noticeably improved upon, wicked in haunts and smart to cast little Lulu Wilson (child actor from Ouija: Origin Of Evil). It ain’t October yet, but who says you can’t squeeze a few screams in before summer dries up?
Annabelle’s origin takes us to the Mullins residence, circa 1950. Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), a retired toymaker, offers his roomy estate to a Catholic orphanage with no other options. Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) arrives with her bus full of homeless girls, who immediately take to their new arrangement. Mr. Mullins issues two cardinal rules – don’t enter a locked room upstairs and don’t enter his wife’s room (Miranda Otto as Esther). Sounds simple? Not for Janice (Talitha Bateman), who, despite a Polio-afflicted limp, finds herself led to the forbidden room by someone – or something. Linda (Lulu Wilson) accompanies her best friend one night, but senses danger almost immediately. The Mullins residence hides a dark secret, and it’s about to be released once again.
What’s that Mr. Mullins? Don’t go near the ominous, dead-eyed doll? Oh, it’s far too late for that. All these girls can do is pray (and run and scream a lot).
Annabelle: Creation is essentially Red Flags: The Movie, but that doesn’t mean Sandberg fails to conjure horrific interactions. The man who illuminated jump scares in Lights Out once again lurks in the shadows, striking fear deeper than a wooden relic whose head twists back and forth. Children habitually exhibit false confidence, and challenge evil forces without even knowing. A burlap scarecrow, cob-webbed crawlspace, bed blankets – all used to elevate anxiety.
Those who’ve seen Annabelle understand she isn’t a living entity (or very intimidating). That role is filled by the horned, slender beast who ties itself to Annabelle’s totem, meaning horror comes from all the “paranormal” winds whipping around the Mullins house. Demonic eyes pierce blackened rooms, camouflaging a tar-colored creature as it telepathically breaks a man’s fingers. Slammed doors echo and the ghost of “Bee” Mullins walks free. A particularly squirmy gag involves Linda, a pop-cannon fake gun and an “empty” hallway (my favorite). All things you might find walking around a Halloween attraction, transitioned gleefully to screen.
Story itself plays a lesser role when clutching audiences. Annabelle’s origin is a sad, unfortunate curse on the Mullins family – Bee getting hit by a car – and even worse, the demon’s beckoning comes out of grief. Parents who just want to see their little girl again, and the evil force that manipulates loss. Twelve years later the wound is still fresh, yet all seems forgiven.
Sister Charlotte’s orphans arrive because Samuel assumes an undead tormentor has vanished (uh?) – but, like, that’s not something you maybe mention in passing? No one wakes up as Janice explores each night? Innocent children sleep in a house where someone has just died (not of natural causes)? Every moment of Annabelle: Creation screams “GET OUT NOW,” only to be written off as juvenile imaginations. Characters hang around way too long and make the most horror-fitting decisions, even if period aesthetics do ease our frustration (50s country isolation, nowhere to go).
We already know Lulu Wilson can play possessed (Ouija: Origin Of Evil), and now we know she can battle against nightmares as well. She’s the eventual protagonist, smart enough to realize something is very, horribly wrong. Other orphans played by Philippa Coulthard and Grace Fulton are merely terror fuel, while Stephanie Sigman relies on the grace of God to protect her flock. Anthony LaPaglia mutters, Miranda Otto plays a broken mother and Talitha Bateman hobbles into all the wrong doorways – genre arcs stuck on repeat.
Wilson, a pint-sized demon hunter, is as courageous as she is horror-bait. Why she would ever rely on a rickety pulley system for escape is a head-shake moment, and why she’d hoist herself right back up after immediate failure is even more thoughtless – but it works. Her descent highlights gore and her rise grows tenser with each rope tug. Sandberg knows what’s scary – as derivative as it may be – and Wilson is a mini delight when scampering away from danger. Her concerned eyes and child’s intuition are made for Hollywood, even when just sitting on a porch chair, starring off at cloudy nothingness.
Looking for a fun night out at the movies, horror fans? Annabelle: Creation is no lifeless dummy. Plotting may run a bit thin and coincidental, but David F. Sandberg whips up bone-chilling scares and hefty doses of peek-through-your-fingers imagery. What other movie this year has a sinister devil drop from the shadows like Spider-Man right after breaking a lightbulb in front of its victim’s face? An electric shock, revelling in doom and gloom (and representative of Sandberg’s promise to terrify). It’s no game-changer, but Annabelle redone this is not. It’s Lights Out lite, with heavy influences of Ouija: Origins Of Evil and a shoehorned cameo that will surely lead into The Nun (Conjuring Cinematic Universe). Carve your expectations accordingly.