Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Lulu Wilson, Talitha Bateman, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto, Philippa Coulthard, Grace Fulton, Tayler Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Samara Lee, Mark Bramhall
MPAA Rating: (for horror violence and terror)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 8/11/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 10, 2017
It's a certain type of horror filmmaker who can get a scare and build some tension in a scene that takes place in broad daylight. There's such a scene in Annabelle: Creation, the origin story of the creepy doll from The Conjuring, in which director David F. Sandberg actually uses the sunlight to his benefit—namely the way an evil presence creates a miniature eclipse with its head, meaning that we can't see its face. We can imagine it, though, and Sandberg knows that our imaginations are capable of creating much worse than he could show.
"Wait," you might be thinking. "Didn't they already do the origin story of the creepy doll from The Conjuring?" Why, yes, indeed they did, hypothetical inquirer. Three years ago, in fact, there was Annabelle, which seemed like a pointless exercise in franchise-building but turned out to work in a few of its individual moments, if not as a whole. A trick in a photograph in one shot and the post-credits sequence in this film tease some unknown story about the terrifying nun from The Conjuring 2, too, so it seems that horror movies are creating their own, insular cinematic universes now.
That doesn't seem too promising, but then again, neither did a series about a creepy doll that barely figured into the film from which it came. That feeling turned out to be a little less than half correct.
This film, which takes place before the events of the previous one, is a tight and taut chiller that tells a useless and familiar story, but it does so with a firm grasp on what's genuinely frightening. It's not the blood. It's not the gore. It's not the demons or even the creepy dolls. It's a sense of the unknown—a dark hallway, a closed door, a sound that can't be identified, the eerie silence of a house in the middle of nowhere.
Sandberg basically has made a light-and-sound show—just not the frantic kind. Its lights and sounds rise and fade so deliberately that we barely notice when a light begins to fade or a sound begins to come closer. This isn't a film about the jump-out-at-you scares. It's one that keeps us thinking that something could jump out at us at any given moment. All of it certainly effective enough to keep us from thinking about how silly the underlying story is.
The story proper begins in 1957, as a group of orphans travel to house in the middle of the desert. Their new home is the house of a previously happy family. Samuel and Esther Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto) lost their daughter Bee (Samara Lee) on a dirt road 12 years ago, thanks to a runaway lug nut and a speeding car. Now, they've opened up their home to the orphans, cared for by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman).
Needless to say, there's something strange about the house. Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman), the youngest of the girls, find that out the hard way, when Janice, who has to wear a leg brace and walk with a crutch after suffering from polio, opens the door to the only room in the house that's off limits. There, she discovers that creepy doll, locked away in a secret closet that's lined with pages from the Bible. To be fair to poor Janice, the room is pretty dark when she wanders in there.
Darkness is essential here. One could say it's like a character, if one were prone to old and tired clichés. Instead, let's just say that Sandberg uses it for exactly what it is: nothing. It is the absence of comprehension. There is no telling if the creaking, tapping, and footsteps in a pitch-black space are coming from a place 10 feet away or 10 inches away. The first time we see the doll in that closet, its face is precisely—some would say conveniently—covered in a shroud of shadow. This image is somehow more frightening than the doll itself, although, to be fair to the pale-faced and smirking thing, it's legitimately creepy this time around, especially the way its head suddenly has turned to look at the girls talking about the Mullins' dead daughter. When Janice moves out of its view, there's a brief shot of the doll in the foreground, and we notice that its eyes have moved just enough to see what the girl is doing.
Anyone who has seen the previous entries in this franchise knows that there's something evil, as in something from the Devil itself, involved here. What Gary Dauberman's screenplay does well is to avoid such theological and spiritual explanations. There's a demon, to be sure, a coal-black figure that responds to Janice's inquiry of what it wants with a resounding, "Your soul!" That's enough of an explanation, thank you very much.
Instead, the storytelling is lean, because Sandberg is more concerned with creating a well-functioning machine. It's all about what we can't see—how the darkness is both the promise of something frightening to come and a clever bit of misdirection. Because Sandberg knows we're smart enough to expect that the scare will come from the dark places, he has them come from elsewhere, without the prompting of a musical score.
All hell breaks loose in the climax, as it should, and even then, there's a mischievous quality to it: Every time a character escapes one situation, they find themselves in a worse one. That's exactly what a haunted ride like Annabelle: Creation should deliver, and it does.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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