Annabelle: Creation (2017)
Dir.: David F. Sandberg
In the age of cinematic universes in Hollywood, every franchise and every studio wants to expand, in order to encompass each potential goldmine, extracting as much revenue from moviegoers as possible. Many properties have failed in these franchise-grubbing quests, but one that has seemingly succeeded is the universe encompassing James Wan's Conjuring films. The first was a surprise hit and an excellent, influential horror film in an era where to many horror films are executed poorly and without artistic integrity. The second film continued the legacy of the Warrens with furthered character development and some impressive directing decisions (the long-take with Patrick Wilson in the second film remains one of the best long takes I've ever seen in a horror film.) Perhaps the only film that did not succeed is the spin-off Annabelle, focusing on a creepy doll from the first film. Alas, here we are, watching a prequel to a spin-off, Annabelle: Creation. Unlike its uninspired, half-cocked predecessor, Creation manages to be an effective little horror film, focusing on its characters and its isolated orphanage location to create an intense and visceral horror show.
Perhaps the great strength in crafting another Annabelle spin-off lies in the studio's choice of director, David F. Sandberg. Coming hot off the heels of high-concept horror with his feature Lights Out, Sandberg rises to meet the challenge of transitioning from his own brain baby towards a commercial vehicle. His directing style smartly utilizes multiple sequences involving what I call "fake-out" scares: in other words, rather than traditional jump scares accompanied with loud violins like so many horror movies (including the original Annabelle) are guilty of, Sandberg utilizes many out-of-focus background figures to heighten the sense of dread, and though there are traditional jump scares used throughout the film, they never feel grating, unearned, or most importantly, annoying. The set pieces and their scares that they evoke always feel like a welcome compliment to the more intimate scenes of character development; unlike other generic horror films, one half does not feel like it gets in the way of the other. This well-crafted dichotomy results not only because of Sandberg's effective directing, but also to the acting and the surprisingly emotionally engrossing script.
Utilizing a cast that takes the material on the page seriously is a trend that filmmakers like Wan began a few years ago, as other filmmakers took note of how the performances in films like Insidious and The Conjuring could transition into modern horror dread better than most other modern possession-based narratives had shown. Sandberg assembles a cast of young girls that all feel appropriate for initiates into potential scream queen stardom, including Talitha Bateman (The Hive, The 5th Wave) and Lulu Wilson (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Deliver Us From Evil). These two have the most chemistry, as they play the best friends in the film, and the main cruxes of conflict regarding the spirit of the Annabelle doll revolve around them. Who knows, perhaps maybe even the Annabelle doll got a pay raise for her minimalist, creepy performance. Though there is a lack of narrative depth until the very end of the film, whereupon an exposition dump with the cliched ultimate reveal drops, the cast make the most of what they're given, both when they're scared and when they're simply talking. This acting carries a barebones, linear narrative that could have felt boring, but thanks to these performances and Sandberg's direction and cleverly creepy cinematic flourishes, the film remains entertaining all the way through.
The main difference between this film and the Conjuring films that it takes its universe from lies in its narrative focus. The main films in the franchise focus a whole lot more on the possession angle, and while there is a little of this in this film, particularly towards the third act, most of the events in Creation play out like a typical haunted house film, albeit a cleverly executed one. Sandberg definitely feels like he makes this universe his own as a result, however, and the lack of heft in the writing is made up for with his stylistic approach to scares. The cinematography features interesting uses of crane shots and tracking shots, and the times he feels most Wan-inspired lie in the franchise's trademark out-of-focus environmental scares. The score makes appropriate use of orchestra mixed with minimalist, bass-accentuated scare scenes, and thankfully it omits the bass-droning, screeching annoyances that a lot of amateurly-directed horror films fall prey to. Put simply, it's executed well enough in its writing so that its directors' approach can carry it.
Annabelle: Creation ultimately adds up to be a much-needed improvement over its predecessor, though not quite as well-constructed as the main Conjuring films it takes its world-building from. It's the perfect example of a good-but-not-great horror film that makes the most of its strengths so that its weaknesses don't sink it. The future of the Conjuring cinematic universe looks to be a strong one indeed. With films like The Nun and an inevitable main third Conjuring film on the horizon, it's a good time to remain faithful in this particular possession-based horror property. This is a worthy film to see in theaters, but if you can't see it on the big screen, it's definitely worth a rental in a few months, especially if you're a fan of the Conjuring films or horror in general.