The upsurge of horror in recent years (both in independent and major studios) has been crucial to the development of the genre, not just as an exercise in pure terror, but in the conversion of big studio projects into individual visions. It’s likely that we have probably seen more quality horror in recent years than any other before it, but as an over-saturated market this blessing has also cursed us with its share of flops. In the case of Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to 2014’s Annabelle (itself a prequel to The Conjuring), its problems seem jammed somewhere in between. Many, myself included, will consider it a substantial improvement over the original Annabelle, but the end result still only palely reminds one of The Conjuring (itself a flawed triumph of unmitigated horror).
The story begins as a tasteless and convictionless cloy, a dollmaker and his wife (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto, respectively) experience a terrible tragedy in the death of their young daughter when she is run over by a car. Twelve years later the couple, who are now reclusive and taciturn, take seven orphaned girls and their caretaker nun (Stephanie Sigman) into their home. What transpires next fulfills one’s expectations but at the same time disappoints them. Once night hits the girls are terrorized one-by-one by a demonic entity which has seemingly taken possession of a life-sized doll.
The genre know-how present in The Conjuring are used in full force in Annabelle: Creation, but despite its strong devotion to the format the end result still feels somewhat routine. The tricks that made James Wan’s film an unexpected delight have become the new dull custom, a standard Warner Bros. adopted after picking up on Wan’s penchant for aural and visual scares. Even the ominous foreshadow in the film’s opening begin to feel more like a staled forecast, the introduction of props–like an mechanical stairlift, a dumbwaiter and a stone water well–are not so much bad omens but coming attractions.
The tone of the film fluctuates between schmaltz in the daytime and dread at night, neither of which compliment the other very well. The pacing of the film doesn’t displace or unsettle, as one would assume of a horror film, but rather settles into a clear-cut rhythm, proving itself utterly bereft of The Conjuring’s clever manipulation of syntax. The looming nighttime sequences almost come as a reprieve from the lacking drama and character in the rest of the film but also suffer from similar crippling defects. Rife with conventional jump scares and ear jolts it comes as no surprise that the best moments in Annabelle: Creation are scenes of unbridled panic, moments that require very little character growth, psychological depth or story.
Another void felt amid the ghostly havoc in Annabelle: Creation is its sense of character. The orphans are a mostly shallow and generic story presence, a great way to evince fright and terror on unsuspecting victims without drama, sympathy or anything else that might threaten to make Annabelle: Creation a more gripping experience.
Not surprisingly, most of the film’s pathos seems to derive from a crippled orphan. Upon arriving at the large secluded homestead the polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman), who walks with a cane, can only watch wistfully from the upper-story window as the other six orphans frolic around the property. The circumstances of her disability, however, is less a character detail than it is a cruel story design, Janice’s physical handicap is shown to be more effective as adding susceptibility and disadvantage to the character in moments of horror. It’s not only cut-rate plot device but, in context, an ugly detail in general–I can’t really be too offended by this point though, considering the same filmmaker behind this unintentionally made suicide the final solution in his last horror film, which left a particularly bad taste in people’s mouths because it also doubled as a parable on mental illness.
Director David F. Sandberg is mostly known up to this point for having made 2016’s Light’s Out, the film previously mentioned. It was a critical success for the most part but still only a tactless knockoff of The Babadook. Stripped of the latter’s expressive style and affectionate approach to metaphorical horror, Light’s Out seemed to thrive purely off entertainment value, and not even the kind that constitutes as actual horror (the idea was already outdone nine years earlier by Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels episode). Both a failure as horror and as art, Sandberg’s next tryst in the same genre wisely drops the extra baggage, instead adopting creeping atmosphere and flat-out terror as core principles—unfortunately, it can hardly be credited for achieving either. Annabelle: Creation is too fixated on the explosive and bombastic properties of shock horror to understand the kind of fear truly effective horror movies leave in their wake.