Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Anne Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck
Runtime: 1 hr 49 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Horror)
Released By: Warner Bros
Official Website: http://annabellemovie.com
Opening Day: 9 August 2017
Synopsis: In “Annabelle: Creation,” several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a doll maker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home. They soon become the target of the doll maker’s possessed creation, Annabelle.
In case you don’t make it to the end of this review, here’s the quick lowdown: if you can’t already guess from its self-evident title, Annabelle: Creation’s a prequel, which means even if you haven’t caught the first Annabelle movie, you won’t have trouble following this one (although its ending, which directly connects to a scene in its 2014 predecessor, should be a welcome flourish for those who’re familiar with the first flick). Secondly, if you haven’t seen the trailers yet for this film, don’t – scares of this sort obviously work better without the benefit of foreknowledge – although even if you have, don’t fret as there’s still plenty left to go around. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all however – considering the mediocrity of its forerunner, Annabelle: Creation’s actually pretty enjoyable as a whole.
This fourth instalment in James Wan’s The Conjuring horror universe about its titular grotesque doll opens off with happier times. Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) lives with his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and daughter Bee (Samara Lee) in an idyllic mansion more than a couple of notches too large for their family – a luxury apparently afforded by the successes of his doll-making career. The set-up itself is cleverly established with eerie portent – Mullins’s playing a game of hide-and-seek with his daughter which involves a series of scribbled notes, creepily still curtains and a dense air of dread. Because this is a horror flick, happy o’clock doesn’t last for long and tragedy soon strikes the family.
Fast forward to 12 years on – the Mullins decide the world could do with a little more charity and their home a little more cheer, so after an orphanage shuts down, they invite a Catholic nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), and six young orphan girls under her charge to live with them. It’s these kids who steal the show from this point onwards, in particular the fearless Janice (Talitha Bateman), who sports a leg brace due to polio, which compromises her mobility, and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson), who’s sworn that any prospective foster parents will need to adopt them both. Ostracised by the other girls, the friendship between these two bolsters the film with some tender moments in a movie that otherwise, on paper at least, consists of a plotline that borders on featherlight in the weight category and characters who’re for the most part incompletely realised.
Essentially, and without any further spoilers, the rest of the film deals with how one of the girls inadvertently (and literally) opens the door to the demonic forces that act through Bee’s doll, Annabelle, and precipitates the havoc wrecked on the house’s inhabitants. Questions are raised and answers are gradually revealed: who the ones responsible for bringing forth the evil in the first place are and why Mrs Mullins has been reduced to living away from the rest in the confines of her bedroom. If the story’s a little banal, that’s ok, because director David F. Sandberg’s sophomore feature-length film (after last year’s Lights Out) shows he’s able to convey the scares, which is what we really needed anyway. In his inky style, cheap jolts are eschewed in favour for an expert build-up of uneasy atmosphere; lighting and sound effects go hand in hand like a delectable wine and cheese pairing to deliver a frightfully good time. We quite literally hold our breaths as lightbulbs flicker, shadows loom and rooms go still.
Unlike the first Annabelle movie directed by John R. Leonetti, which sagged in parts due to its protracted telling of a story that wasn’t particularly engaging as well as its uneven parsing of terrifying moments, Sandberg knows what horror audiences are seeking. Returning to The Conjuring’s success formula by grounding the action in a spooky, sprawling house and maximising all of its elements – from its endless rooms, claustrophobic dumbwaiter and malfunctioning chairlift to a nearby well and dollmaking shack – practically nothing is spared from being the setting of your worst nightmare. By the time weird stuff starts to happen, there’s hardly a scene which plods along for too long before it culminates in some kind of scare. Night after night, as the girls inexplicably tempt fate and the inexorable descent into mayhem unfolds, fright-inducing scenes are pumped out with increasing alacrity (until it becomes possible for bad stuff to start happening even in the day), nearly all of them packing a masterful punch before it all escalates into the film’s deliciously heart-stopping climax.
The film’s choice of a kid-centric cast is also played to its favour in a number of ways. We almost forgive the ludicrously poor decisions made by the girls to open forbidden doors and play in places they aren’t supposed to, because, well, blame it on immaturity and youthful insouciance. Children also make for a friendly fit in claustrophobic spaces – pretty much perfect for a horror flick. A toy gun with a retractable projectile becomes a kid’s weapon of choice against evil, but it also becomes the filmmakers’ tool for raising hairs when its projectile launches into the dark and fails to return. Bateman and Wilson also demonstrate their precocious acting talent by breathing life into their roles and generating believable chemistry as the plucky duo Janice and Linda – we do feel for them. The physical handicap written into the character of Janice predictably ends up a liability for her, and while this is milked by the director for maximum effect in chilling sequences when she tries to bolt from the diabolical entity pursuing her, we can’t help but feel more than a pang of sadness when she resignedly says it’s come for her because she’s the weakest of the kids.
At the end of the day, there is precious little in Annabelle: Creation that is novel and this will probably be the biggest bone of contention for critics, but Sandberg’s well-played old-school psychological tricks and polished renderings of horror tropes deserve praise. It’s to his credit that he understands that less can be more, from the seemingly lifeless Annabelle doll popping up in unexpected places and switching positions after the camera pans back to it, down to eyes that faintly glow in dark photographs. Talking about spooky pictures, watch out for the scene where Sister Charlotte shows an old photo of herself with her convent sisters – an additional ghostly figure in the background reveals itself when the picture is held at a certain angle – surely a reference to the next spin-off, The Nun, slated for a 2018 release. It’s probably high time to retire the Annabelle line of sequels, but if the quality of Annabelle: Creation is anything to go by, we’d like to see what the upcoming Conjuring production brings to the table.
(Compared to its predecessor about the cursed doll, Annabelle: Creation marks a return to form which, while hardly breaking any new ground, should offer a satisfying time for horror fans looking for a dependably scary time)
Review by Tan Yong Chia Gabriel