- Fear level: moderate
- Great performances from young actresses Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson
- Some bland characters with a plot light on story
- Though initial jump scares seem cheap and easy, the real scares come later, building up and impacting well
- Creepy doll still scary, but fortunately not overused
- Much better than the first one, tying in very, very well at the end
- A strong spin-off – a good sign for future films in the Conjuring franchise
In terms of modern horror, I’ve long thought James Wan to be something of a master; a genius at reinventing a genre so vulnerable to becoming stale, he’s made such modern horror classics as Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring, all three of them spawning very successful franchises (because apparently Hollywood can’t allow a film to be successful nowadays without spawning a franchise). The most latter is the one in which Annabelle: Creation has come from, elaborating the back story of the creepy doll Anabelle seen in the first film. The Conjuring series currently encompasses the two main films with a third in the works, with Anabelle being the first spin-off, followed by Anabelle: Creation with The Nun and The Crooked Man not far off. Whilst The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are strong films rife with scary horror and inspired filmmaking, the initial spin-off, Anabelle, was very weak in comparison, with a mostly forgettable story, unengaging characters and few original scary scenes, resorting to cheap jump scares. This didn’t bode well for the rest of the spin-offs. However it’s a huge relief that Annabelle: Creation seems to put the franchise back on course; a much stronger film, this lives up to the strong reputation of the main Conjuring films and is a vast improvement.
Set before the events of the first film, it begins with a dollmaker, Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), enjoying a happy family life with his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and young daughter, Bee (Samara Lee). Sadly Bee dies in a sudden car accident and, years later, the bereaved couple welcome Sister Charlotte (former Bond girl Stephanie Sigman) and a group of girls from an orphanage to live with them. While exploring their new home, misfits Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman) are drawn to a locked room that Samuel bans them from entering. Yet, as with so many horror films, the door is inevitably found unlocked and Janice is led to the room where she finds a creepy doll locked in a cupboard. Soon strange and creepy goings-on obviously start to occur, with events quickly spiralling out of control with ghosts, demons and scares aplenty.
Whilst certainly a stronger film than its predecessor, it nevertheless still has its flaws; namely characters and story. Whereas we have Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring, there isn’t really a stand out character to remember fondly in this movie, no character being particularly well-developed. The priest is predictably stereotypical (Irish and consistently talking about religion, obviously…); Samuel is understandably dower and awkward after what he’s been through, but disappointingly nothing of any interest is revealed to be hidden underneath his depressing stubble; his wife Esther too is very underwhelming – particularly because she’s hidden for so long, one would assume there would be more substance to a character shrouded in such mystery for the majority of the film; most of the orphaned girls too are generic and largely devoid of character. It seems as though with a bit more care to writing, genuinely interesting characters could have been developed. Fortunately the central trio are slightly more interesting.
While Sister Charlotte was a missed opportunity, it’s nice to have a voice of reason to ground the film and progress both the plot and characters of Janice and Linda. It’s these latter two girls, engaging and very likeable with impressive chemistry for such young actresses, who are much more interesting in terms of characterisation, the former particularly due to her disability. Unable to walk well, Janice’s struggle to run away is reminiscent of all those nightmares where you try to run but your legs just won’t let you. More than that, the scene with a stair chair, taking Janice unwillingly to the danger waiting for her at the top of the stairs, not letting her escape, really adds to the terror. Other than these girls, however, there aren’t many characters you fear for, the audience not really caring about the fates of most people. It’s refreshing to follow the young girls though, their curiosity and childish fear being much more appealing than a cynical adult. It’s just a shame that they seem unbalanced, the main character switching from Linda to Janice and back to Linda; this inconsistency helps to slightly unbalance the film as a whole.
As is sadly all too common with scary films, emphasis is not on story. Rather there is a basic set-up and then the rest of the story is light and easy to follow, all of it being just an excuse for the scares. The best aspect of this film’s story comes right at the very end, where it ties in perfectly to its predecessor (this only makes sense if you’ve seen the other film however; otherwise the ending will be a very weird, unexplained one). This little sequence also introduces another type of doll, which was in fact what the “real-life” Annabelle looked like – a very nice touch for horror aficionados. The ending aside though, the film’s plot is light and easy to follow, with the set-up quick and the scares soon coming. These scares come slowly though, initially beginning with a few cheap jump scares. This changes around the half-way mark however, where there are good build-ups to strong horror scenes, some fairly long and unrelenting, immersing you in the terror. It’s also worth mentioning that not all shocks and jolts come from the doll; yes, the doll is often used to increase the creepy, sinister atmosphere and comes up to scare you, but it is employed more sparingly than the previous film, allowing a more diverse variety of frights. And of course there are horror staples to enjoy too; where would we be without chilling music turning on by itself, locked doors, peeping through keyholes and rocking chairs? These are scary films’ bread and butter and they really do their job well in this film.
Clearly hiring David F. Sandberg as director was a good call; although mostly doing just horror shorts and feature-length Lights Out (though this was notably much weaker than this one), this is proof that as a director he has the ability to do horror well (especially with maestro James Wan producing), making the most of the scares and their set-ups, the use of certain cinematic devices inspiring and well done. Part of the joy of horror films is the audience and director competing with each other; the audience tries to guess what will make them jump, while the director tries to surprise them with the unexpected. In Annabelle: Creation’s most terrifying scenes, we are constantly competing and it’s an absolute joy. Yes, often we can predict things and see the jumps coming – hardcore horror fans may find some elements laughable and not particularly scary – but it is still thoroughly enjoyable. Not that this has terror levels akin to such films as The Exorcist; it may not be massively terrifying and you won’t lose much sleep, but this is definitely scary and jumpy enough to satisfy most.
Although the characters may be a little bland and the story predictable and flat (up until the end that is), Annabelle: Creation is a strong horror spin-off, easily able to stand on its own without its franchise. Though not the scariest film you’ll ever see, it’s undoubtedly frightening enough to satisfy all fans of horror, using horror cinematic devices old and new to continue making a generation of cinema-goers scared stiff of sinister looking dolls. The Conjuring (or Wan-verse as I like to call it) has its first good spin-off – bring on The Nun!