I wouldn’t have guessed when I first saw “The Conjuring” that we’d be seeing a prequel spinoff a few years later about a haunted doll that makes a two-minute appearance in that movie. Much less did I expect that doll’s spinoff to earn its own prequel, especially after critical panning and box office poorer than either “Conjuring” film. Nevertheless, the “Conjuring” franchise — or “The Conjuring Universe,” as Warner Bros. is calling it (wow, I really hate that) — has become the most financially reliable new horror franchise of the decade, and thus its potential box office draw must be capitalized on to the fullest degree. Yay.
That said, how did this prequel’s prequel turn out? Actually, not that bad. “Annabelle: Creation” manages to outdo its namesake predecessor, getting a little closer to achieving the same effect of the iconic “Conjuring” films. Director David Sandberg, who made a name for himself with last year’s surprise fear-of-the-dark hit “Lights Out,” brings a little more gravity to this “Annabelle” installment with moderately interesting character dynamics — practically a rarity within the genre.
“Creation” attempts to illustrate how the Annabelle doll came to be a force for evil; hence, “Creation.” About 14 years before the events of “The Conjuring,” a man named Mullins, who once built children’s dolls for a living, opens his house as a home for a nun and a group of orphans. Well, lo and behold, one of the orphans manages to find a doll that Mr. Mullins has locked away, on account of it being possessed by a demon ever since his young daughter’s death 12 years prior. Of course, zany hijinks ensue.
Unfortunately, “Creation” gets so caught up in these hijinks that it almost forgets to slow down so that we can attach ourselves to its characters. Practically every five minutes, the film finds itself setting up an entirely new scene with an entirely new scare. It’s exhausting. On top of that, these scares are nothing horror fans haven’t seen before. Sandberg very obviously draws inspiration from James Wan’s style in “The Conjuring,” but without quite as much creativity, and with a helping of repetitive predictability. Sandberg strikes a similar rhythm with each of his scares, and once this is realized by the midpoint in the film, it results in a lack of tension and curiosity for the remainder of the film’s scarier moments.
When “Creation” does so very seldomly stop to catch its breath, the relationships built between the orphans and their caretaker, Sister Charlotte, are surprisingly warm and genuine. Even through clunky dialogue and mostly mediocre acting, the characters manage a level of chemistry that is unexpected. It is even more frustrating, then, that the script forces unconvincing and senseless decisions out of its characters in order to precipitate another scare. These continual upheavals of the suspension of disbelief make for patchy engagement.
Still, it’s nice to see any humanity at all, especially in such a bleak and uninteresting genre as modern horror. As with the two “Conjuring” films, “Creation” manages to add a humane hopefulness to its story, drawn from its compassionate main characters. This allows for somewhat heightened drama when we see the characters in danger, and a sense of relief and warmth when they make it through to the next quiet moment.
Overall, “Annabelle: Creation” is hardly anything new, especially if you’ve seen either of the “Conjuring” films, but it’s not a bad film. If you are a particularly big fan of the franchise, this one might just pluck enough of the same chords to garner sufficient enjoyment. Alternatively, if you’re in need of a horror flick with a moderately well-crafted human side, then maybe this is for you as well. Otherwise, due to a lack of creativity and an unnecessary urgency for “conjuring” up scares, you might be better off leaving this one locked in the closet.