A happy couple (played by Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto) find their lives forever changed when their daughter, Annabelle, dies a horrible, violent death. Twelve years pass and the late Annabelle’s parents have converted their home into an orphanage. It houses a cluster of girls, including Linda, the youngest (played by Lulu Wilson) and her best friend Janice (played by Tabitha Bateman), a polio survivor. Turns out Annabelle’s parents have a few secrets they haven’t told their guests… like why a creepy doll bearing their dead daughter’s likeness keeps appearing around the house.
Although this doesn’t hit near-classic status like last year’s surprisingly excellent Ouija: Origin of Evil, it overcomes the low expectations and muted impact of junk like The Women in Black 2: Angel of Death. Here is a rare horror sequel/prequel (and spin-off of The Conjuring) that justifies its existence. There are references to the next big Conjuring spin-off, The Nun, which, if it’s even possible, looks much scarier than this one. Taken as a stand-alone scare inducer, this is a skillful, truly chilling work.
Wilson, 11, starred in Ouija: Origin of Evil in a performance that thoroughly freaked me out. Here, she’s the protagonist and, once again, gives a strong, grounded turn. Bateman is equally good as the most sympathetic of the girls Annabelle haunts. But both LaPaglia and Otto, the biggest names in the cast, have seen better days than playing the walking plot devices they provide here.
I prefer the first Annabelle (2014), with its 1970s setting, Rosemary’s Baby-inspired hook and inventive fiendishness. Although its ending didn’t make a lick of sense, it was a mostly blood-free, scare-heavy, suspenseful horror tale that was better produced and written than I expected. Annabelle: Creation bludgeons the viewer with so many shocks it becomes numbing after a while. Also, the mad-slasher-in-the-house finale is old hat and the identity of the killer is especially dubious.
Still, to give proper praise, this prequel has maybe twice as many scares and is relentless in its pursuit of movie theater screams. The best and worst thing about Annabelle: Creation is that it’s like being trapped in a haunted house. If that sounds like a fun night at the movies, then you’re clearly the audience for this. On the other hand, if being uncomfortable, watching a screen through quivering fingertips and jumping in your seat from visceral jolts sounds like torture, then I highly recommend seeing The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature.
Director David S. Sandberg previously made the petrifying Lights Out short film and last year’s pretty good feature length adaption. He’s a whiz with the little details that inflict serious eebie-jeebies, like photographs with glowing eyes, a chair that slowly lurches upstairs and a doll ever so slowly moving its head. Some of the most unsettling imagery is on loan from The Ring and Pet Sematary, which is a good thing.
Lots of logic-grounded questions pop up, like wouldn’t a group of girls notice someone in a wheelchair being pushed by a ghost into a barn and, really, why does anyone stay at that house? To the film’s credit, it’s so busy startling us that I tended not to linger on the bits that didn’t make sense. The scene where Linda commits a remarkable, sensible act of bravery is just one example where Landberg’s fusing of performance, pacing and especially sound effects is top-notch. He’s not a Master of Horror yet but, if he keeps this up, he could be on his way.
As the audience shuffled out, I heard a tough-looking guy say this to his girlfriend (in censored form, of course): “That movie was motherf@#$%&* scary.” He was right.