REVIEW – “Annabelle: Creation” Improves on Predecessor, While Still Painfully Convoluted
by Joe Hammerschmidt
2013’s The Conjuring still remains a benchmark for the horror genre, from the widest lens possible. With regards to its smaller spin-off series, a step in the right direction has been deservedly approached with the arrival of Annabelle: Creation, essentially a prequel-to-a-spinoff parlaying the origins of the accursed doll whose fictional life started as a one-off oddity in the closet of Elizabeth and Patrick Warren, the heroes from the primary series. Whereas the previous Annabelle installment was a sloppy mix of lazy directing/acting, save for Alfre Woodard. Second time around, there’s plenty of room for improvement, thanks in part to a fresh face in the horror scene with director David F. Sandberg (last year’s low-budget fave Lights Out) and leading man Anthony LaPaglia heading up a far more convincing entry.
Predating the events of its predecessor by about three decades, the California wilderness hadn’t looked so menacing after former toymaker Samuel Mullins (LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) made the careful choice of hiding away into secrecy following the loss of their young daughter. Mullins’ claim to fame was a small line of dolls, primarily named Annabelle, after their daughter (Samara Lee).
A 12 year period comes and goes when the Mullins family cautiously allow a factor of outside energy back into their household by welcoming in a bus full of displaced orphans led by their den mother (Stephanie Sigman). And from there, the girls themselves are made the eventual targets of the Annabelle doll, whom as expected was possessed by the spirit of the deceased child.
A simple logline, yes; thankfully, simple actually works to this film’s advantage. As proven last year with his big-screen debut Lights Out (also produced by Conjuring shepherd James Wan), Sandberg is comfortable working with less, expanding on the strengths of performers and of the thrill of finding the right look to create a captivating image. John R. Leonetti, helmer of the original Annabelle only knew the latter, shoehorning in too many generic horror tropes to fill the time.
Here, Sandberg is professing his love for the horror genre once more, particularly the old-school gems of the 60s. That may date this film worse than the previous, yet the impact it leaves feels more genuine. It’s impossible not to get wrapped up into the world these characters are sucked into, each actor’s commitment shining on screen like radioactive diamonds meant to make people green with anger. What had the strongest light was likely the young heroine who had discovered the doll in the first place, unknowing of the repurcussions. Young Janice (Talitha Bateman), who had experienced early onset polio losing her legs as a result is instantly the one standout youth performance of the summer, that recieved actual speaking lines (still second behind Amiah Miller in the Apes threequel).
And it isn’t just warm bodies who propel the film’s psychological depth; a multitude of smaller clues and elements are played to Sandberg’s advantage to build the tension right from the get-go. I will admit, however, many of them had went over my head, either because I wasn’t looking hard enough for them, or they weren’t well placed. This may still be the one key fraction my head couldn’t wrap itself around. For all the genuineness that could be mustered, not all can be perfect. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre composes each shot as if it were a stack of pricey paintings. Still, a simplistic plot will almost always equal an overstretched plot; there was a point where I felt I had to shut myself off and walk away. Lights Out worked as well as it did, partly on how quick it ran (at roughly 80 mins); that same lightning fails to strike twice with one’s welcome feeling somewhat overstayed.
Sandberg’s intent is nonetheless clear, however: to build a potboiler horror tale with an old-school marinade injected inside. Annabelle: Creation is a joy to watch, yet a moment should arrive at least midway where you may ask yourself “why haven’t they gotten to the point yet?” It is still a genuine work for the genre, and a convincing argument why the still newborn Conjuring universe can survive just a little longer, with the gentle feel of any of those great horror classics of the genre’s experimental period. Yes, jump scares are abundant, but thankfully they are well-earned. Just do be advised they’re still approached in a manner most complicated, it may be easier to feel burned out by them sooner than anticipated, with the last 20 minutes evolving into a wild effects-laden mess. Faults excluding, it’s an easy watch, and standalone enough to possibly ignore what had come before it. Do intend on staying through the credits for possible evidence of why this film and its religious aesthetics absolutely must tie in to the inevitable Conjuring 3. (C+)
Annabelle: Creation opens today at most area theaters; rated R for horror violence and terror; 109 minutes.