Several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker’s possessed creation, Annabelle.
Surprise! Annabelle Creation is good. Damned good in fact. With franchise mania creeping across genres into James Wan’s The Conjuring universe, we were subjected to a mediocre first spin off with Annabelle (2014). Undaunted, Warner Bros. Pictures commissioned screenwriter Gary Dauberman to get behind the ol’ keyboard again and squirt out another chapter to the story of the possessed doll. The second time around they brought David F. Sandberg on board as director. He had just completed adapting his terrifying two-minute short into a feature length film with Lights Out and proved that he could deliver the goods.
The stakes were high to be sure. Would a sophomore effort by a new horror filmmaker be able to wrangle a franchise back to greener pastures and a better movie? The bet paid off.
“…all of the usual gimmicks are here, but delivered in a far more clever package.”
The film opens on the Toymaker (Anthony LaPaglia), playing hide and seek with his precocious daughter Annabelle in a sprawling Victorian mansion. Hiding notes around the house with clues to her whereabouts, neither the playful little tot, nor the Toymaker, not even her angelic mother (Miranda Otto) could have foreseen that the next day Annabelle would be tragically killed darting out in front of a truck.
The story then jumps 12 years later. It’s the 1950’s and a bus load of orphans lead by the demure Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) have been invited to stay at the ginormous house in the middle of nowhere with the Toymaker and his now bedridden wife. Stricken with grief, the couple hopes to breathe new life into the home by offering shelter to the underprivileged kids.
Sandberg takes the time to introduce us to the setting, the characters, and the rules of this universe while dotting the exposition with little scares here and there to keep things interesting. We explore the foreboding home with its hidden passages, knowing that eventually all of this will be used against as things turn sinister.
What director Sandberg is best at is the tease of the scare and the unpredictable payoff. When first we meet the titular possessed doll it isn’t through a sudden reveal but a slow protracted scene. Disabled orphan, Janice (Talitha Bateman) is lured into the locked room through a series of playful hide-and-seek notes in the middle of the night only to discover the demonic doll hidden in a secret room.
“…executed with such elegant polish it comes off as brilliant.”
Things get more bizarre and a lot more terrifying. As the malevolent playmate haunts poor Janice, her stalwart companion, fellow orphan Linda (Lulu Wilson) begins piecing things together. The evil has escaped and has its eyes sen poor Janice. But how did the doll get possessed? Why was it locked away inside of what could be described as a memorial tomb for a deceased little girl?
Yes, this sounds like a tired, predictable schlock fest but the film is executed with such elegant polish it comes off as brilliant. Shots linger in inky darkness, daring the audience to lean in and see what might be waiting for them. Scares come from unexpected angles with the camera playing with expectations in a fiendish way. Sound is used to enhance the action, not BE the action by using cheap stinger scares. Yes, all of the usual gimmicks are here, but delivered in a far more clever package.
It should also be noted that the female-centric cast brings their a-game to material that could have easily been phoned in. At the head of the pack are Bateman and Wilson who share remarkable chemistry as the plucky pair of orphans that promise never to leave each other behind. Then of course there is Sigman as the kind caretaker of the brood who dances dangerously close to saccharine sweet without ever going full bore.
If anything can be said for the screenplay it would be that it had no qualms putting kids in danger. This is a full-on R rated horror pic that gives kids the credit of being brave, strong, and fully capable of taking on a demonic doll.
No, Annabelle Creation is not going to change your life, but it’s a horror movie that knows what it is and comes at the audience with full force. I haven’t had this good of a time in a packed theater of screaming horror fans since, well, since The Conjuring come to think of it. Sandberg has cemented his place in horror and guided a franchise back on track with this new entry.
Annabelle Creation (2017) Directed by: David F. Sandberg Written by: Gary Dauberman Staring: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Anthony LaPaglia , Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson. In theaters August 11, 2017.
Annabelle Creation is worth VOD (****).
* Norm’s Rating System: Full Price (****), Matinee (***), VOD (**), Don’t Bother (*)