Dolls can be terrifying. Linked with childhood, when we were more willing to see life in inanimate things, malevolent dolls make us fear that evil can lurk anywhere. Demons are also terrifying—for they are malicious, powerful monsters.
“Annabelle: Creation” uses both dolls and demons to frighten us. With impressive sets, capable directing and some strong performances, “Annabelle: Creation” will satisfy horror fans looking for scary fun. However, the film never exploits the full horrific potential of dolls and demons, and so never rises beyond horror-film clichés to generate true dread.
“Annabelle: Creation” is a prequel of a prequel. It offers the origin story for the demonic doll and killer accomplice in "Annabelle" (2014), itself a prequel to "The Conjuring" (2013). Director David F. Sandberg will please many of the horror fans at whom the film is targeted, with his deft use of time-tested techniques to build suspense and shock for audiences who know exactly what’s coming.
The film starts off strong with a pair of leisurely developing story lines. After an eerie look at doll-pieces in doll-maker Samuel Mullins’ (played by Anthony LaPaglia) workshop, the film uses domestic tranquility and idyllic music to portray a loving couple and daughter. After a tragic automobile accident, we flash forward 12 years, as six orphans and their supervising nun come to stay at the Mullins’ large, creepy house.
The film’s greatest strength lies in the riveting performances of the youngest two orphans, whose friendship and devotion contrast with Annabelle Mullins’ eerie ghost (Samara Lee) and her evil doll. Talitha Bateman gives an extraordinary performance as Janice, a gentle girl disabled by polio. Bateman conveys both innocence and anxiety as Janice slowly unleashes Annabelle’s demonic presence, while becoming the focus for its ferocious and possessive spirit. Lulu Wilson is excellent as Janice’s best friend Linda, a convincingly kind and loyal spirit whose shock at her friend’s dark turn is palpable.
Grace Fulton offers a fine performance as Carol. In two of the film’s best scenes—when she and Nancy (Philippa Coulthard) see a ghost while telling ghost stories beneath a flashlight-lit sheet, and when she later fights a fiendish scarecrow—Carol moves from being merely a mean girl to a chastened, demon-fighting survivor.
One problem with the film is that its central doll is not particularly scary. Some standard horror film tricks keep us uneasy: the doll eerily rocks itself in a rocking chair, sneaks into the bottom of a bunk bed, and keeps showing up in the most awkward places. However, a film devoted to describing a killer doll’s origins should have come up with a more unsettling background. Delivered in a wooden monologue by the bed-ridden Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto), Annabelle’s origin story merely involves a demon exploiting parental grief to enter a doll.
The film never makes clear why Annabelle was such a special doll, nor does it make its demon remarkable. The closest we get to the demon’s motivation is that it wants Janice’s soul—which leads to much clichéd religious imagery as Sister Charlotte (played capably by Stephanie Sigman) uses both prayer and common sense to steer the girls to safety. It’s never made clear why a demon so powerful as to shoot people into the air needs a human host—and so much of this somewhat jarring movie ultimately rings hollow.
2 stars (out of four)
Talitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman and Anthony LaPaglia star in horror film that provides the backstory to the evil doll first seen in "The Conjuring." 109 minutes. Rated R for horror violence and terror.