Overview: 12 years after the loss of their child, a couple turn their haunted farmhouse into an orphanage. 2017; Warner Bros.; Rated R; 109 minutes
The Switch: Is it too early to coin the term “Flanaganed”? Last year, Ouija: Origin of Evil won our hearts as the Most Improved Horror Franchise thanks to a surprisingly strong followup to its dead on arrival predecessor, Ouija. This was largely due to director Mike Flanagan, who took the dismal story and, by creating a prequel, salvaged the ideas that were muddled and lost in the first.
It may seem unfair to bring this up as Flanagan had nothing to do with this film directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), but it’s hard not to compare the two. In a strange way, Annabelle: Creation has achieved the same revival as Ouija. Both originals were lackluster movies, falling in many worst-of lists even for those who try hard not to celebrate the worst. Now both prequels have all but redeemed the mistakes of their inspirations, and carry that distinct flavour of horror that’s going around these days. This makes sense, given that Annabelle was a spin-off of The Conjuring, and between the two here are a lot of fingers in a lot of shared pies. If, say, you were to make a gift basket of horror films for someone with that taste, Annabelle: Creation, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and both the Insidious and Conjuring franchises would all fit neatly together for a nice, coherent presentation. If that’s what pleases your palate, you’ll be happy with this movie.
Like Real Sisters: What’s most striking (and for some viewers, weakest) about these movies is their surprising amount of heart. They do their best to be scary, but there’s a fair amount of hand-holding and friendship building along the way. Annabelle: Creation shows us a too good to be true family of three disrupted by tragedy, and then introduces us to a small group of orphaned girls, two of which are best friends forever. It doesn’t take long to endear the audience to the girls whose hamfisted interactions and daydreams about being adopted to the perfect family together bring to mind a sort of embarrassing nostalgia of childhood hope.
Fresh from Ouija: Origin of Evil is Lulu Wilson whose intense gaze is more than a little disturbing even when she’s playing on the side of good, this time as Linda. Her friend Janice is played by Talitha Bateman, the real star of the show giving the best performance of anyone through the entire runtime. Bateman acts well beyond her years and understands subtlety, a welcome break from the stiff, dramatic delivery from the other players, particularly the adults in the film.
Horror is notorious for creating more space for girls and it’s refreshing to see a story about young women and nun who are taken into the farmhouse by the eternally-grieving couple. The only male presence is the owner of the house, Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), a man who lost his spark for life and passion for creating dolls when his daughter was taken from him. The grief on his face is telling, and it’s largely the only view we get of it as his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), is an invalid sequestered from the world behind both a curtain and a mask. Her presence is announced through an oddly-chilling bell ring that causes nearly everyone to halt and listen.
She Looks Just Like You: Sandberg is a master of using negative space to create fear. We saw this in Lights Out and we see it in Annabelle: Creation in equal measure. What’s scariest is left unseen: dark corridors, dim outlines, and glowing eyes. The potential for fear often outshines its actual delivery in the film, though there are genuinely creepy moments to be found between jump scares and the ominous presence of the doll herself. Otherwise, its strongest shots are those left half in darkness, causing the stomach to twist in suspense.
Besides their dangerously optimistic daydreaming, there is a wonderful aspect of childhood fears and stories woven around the girls who make up tall tales about why Mrs. Mullins is never seen. The girls find plenty to be afraid of, whether it’s real or imagined, and watching their childhood games brings back those long nights playing Bloody Mary and Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. The film makes great use of distortion and shapes just out of vision particularly through the use of a scarecrow, one of the most underutilized nightmare-inducing images (what’s scarier than a vaguely humanoid burlap face you can impress your own terror onto?) Of course, Joseph Bishara (the demon in Insidious and Bathsheba in The Conjuring) does what he does best with his body as the most unwelcome guest at the tea party. No matter your preferred method of fright, there’s at least one moment that will get you here.
Annabelle: Creation’s story is a little scrambled and takes a particularly bold time leap at the end, but it remains compelling the whole way through. Writer Gary Dauberman who also wrote 2014’s Annabelle carries over some of the cheesy dialogue from the first, but it’s easier to look past and the payoff is worth it. Eager fans will appreciate easter eggs from other films scattered throughout, and those who may be unfamiliar will just enjoy a satisfying horror flick.
Overall: Despite the sentence of its predecessor, Annabelle: Creation stands on its own as an engaging and spooky horror movie that deserves a watch.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.