After a couple of false starts attempting to establish the origins of the demonically possessed doll first introduced in James Wan’s 2013 The Conjuring and featured as the centerpiece of the Annabelle spinoff a year later, Annabelle: Creation finally clarifies her complicated past, initially obscured by conflicting timelines.
Closer in tone and old-school psychological fright tactics to the original film than either The Conjuring 2 or Annabelle, David F. Sandberg’s incisive approach capably resets the franchise in what will surely become another hit horror sequel for New Line Cinema.
As he did with his assured debut in Lights Out, Sandberg demonstrates a deft affinity for the elaboration of horror conventions, as well as the expansion of the Conjuring universe. After deploying the requisite jump scares that get events in gear, the helmer settles into measured pacing that deliberately maneuvers the characters into mounting imperilment while gradually revealing the magnitude of the threat facing them.
First, however, he firmly establishes the narrative baseline for the emergence of the preternaturally disturbing doll by situating the film 12 years after tragedy strikes the Mullins family when Sam (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther’s (Miranda Otto) beloved 7-year-old daughter Annabelle dies in a tragic, strikingly staged accident. Still remorseful over her passing, they offer shelter at their sprawling California farmhouse to a group of six girls from a local Catholic orphanage and their guardian, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman).
Polio-stricken and wearing a leg-brace, young Janice (Talitha Bateman) seems particularly uncertain about the move, but her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) tries to reassure her that Mullins, a former toymaker, and his wife will look after them. While the older girls sleep together in a spacious communal room, they banish less mature Janice and Linda, who end up with a bunk bed in the sewing room once dedicated to creating doll costumes. Mullins, however, deters them from entering the locked room across the upstairs hall or the bedroom where his incapacitated wife has retreated from the world.
Sandberg and production designer Jennifer Spence (who also contributed on Lights Out and two installments of the Insidious franchise) make great use of the eerily labyrinthine layout of the Mullins’ farmhouse, much as Wan did with the haunted home at the center of The Conjuring. Often confined indoors, Janice tentatively explores the numerous interconnected rooms as curiosity finally gets the better of her when she discovers the forbidden bedroom of the Mullins’ deceased daughter.
Still decorated with Annabelle’s toys and furnishings, it’s a complete delight, until Janice finds a large, white-frocked wooden doll in the wardrobe, one of Mullins’ original creations. Put off by the garishly painted toy, Janice tries to ignore the doll, but soon it’s showing up unexpectedly all over the house. After one particularly terrifying late-night encounter, Janice becomes convinced that the doll is possessed and determined to seize her soul. But Sister Charlotte and the other girls think that maybe she’s just a bit hysterical after spending too much time alone in the cavernous house, never suspecting the danger threatening them all.
Annabelle screenwriter Gary Dauberman methodically lays out the plot points leading Janice into closer and more perilous contact with the threatening doll, inexorably drawing the girl toward her expected fate. As Janice becomes increasingly debilitated, Linda emerges as her protector, unknowingly thrusting herself into escalating jeopardy.
The scripting falls short, however, in setting up the fundamental conflicts between religious faith and demonic possession that resonantly characterized the events surrounding the doll in The Conjuring and subsequently Annabelle. Sigman’s Sister Charlotte, although a resolutely reassuring presences for the girls, remains ill-equipped to deal with Satanic visitations, and Mark Bramhall’s Father Massey makes too few appearances to offer much support.
The two youngest girls, however, prove effectively resourceful dealing with the ever-more powerful demon. Bateman bravely embodies Janice’s epic struggle to avoid losing her individuality, as Wilson surprises with Linda’s endearingly fierce display of loyalty and pluck in an effort to protect her closest friend.
Otto ends up underutilized as Annabelle’s traumatized mother, except in one key, impassioned scene when Esther provides a burst of exposition that clarifies her daughter’s unfortunate destiny. LaPaglia’s Sam offers infrequent, cryptic utterances that also hint at the family’s tragic circumstances, but brings little to bear on the outcome of events.
Sandberg nonetheless orchestrates the cast into an impressive ensemble, giving each character a key task to accomplish in the attempt to vanquish the emerging demon. The final scenes satisfyingly circle back to the violent events at the center of Annabelle, efficiently reconnecting the franchise’s chronology.
Production companies: New Line Cinema, Atomic Monster, Safran Company
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Coulthard, Grace Fulton, Lou Lou Safran, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto, Mark Bramhall
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman
Producers: Peter Safran, James Wan
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Walter Hamada, Dave Neustadter, Hans Ritter
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Jennifer Spence
Costume designer: Leah Butler
Editor: Michel Aller
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Rated R, 105 minutes