New Line Cinema
Someone’s a big fan of Poltergeist.
Well, a lot of people are, obviously. I mean, it’s Poltergeist, arguably one of the most-seen and most-influential haunted house movies ever made. For a generation, it is a flashpoint, a movie that they remember as a genuine test of their courage. It’s unusually structured, to say the least, and it feels like the filmmakers running down a checklist of all the things children are afraid of, but it absolutely nails the idea that we have to like the people in the middle of the incident for us to care about it. Watching ANNABELLE: CREATION, the second prequel/spinoff/adjunct to The Conjuring, there are certain beats and certain structural choices that make it fairly obvious that either director David F. Sandberg or screenwriter Gary Dauberman — or more likely, both of them — are fans of the Spielberg classic.
To be fair, there is a certain type of scare that The Conjuring nailed that is now becoming the mechanical trick of this series, so it’s not like they’re just aping someone else’s movie. What’s most clear is that Sandberg is a skilled technician, and he knows how to calibrate a scare. In The Conjuring, there was that great game with the knocking that worked so well because it played off of the audience’s sense of expectation, and that’s something that Annabelle: Creation does well over and over. How much you enjoy the film will depend largely on how much you enjoy that particular type of scare, especially once you figure out how those scares work. The audience I saw the film with was more than happy to go along with it, and there were plenty of screams for almost every big moment.
The film has an aggressive opening sequence in which we meet Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto), as well as their daughter Bee (Samara Lee). He’s a dollmaker, and they’re just a sweet couple who love their daughter. They’re engaged members of their church and their community, and then a tragic traffic accident suddenly changes everything, and we jump forward 12 years to find that the Mullins have opened their home to a group of girls whose orphanage has just closed. It’s a chance for the Mullins to possibly fix the hole left in their family by proxy, and a chance for the girls to settle in somewhere and finally feel like they’re home.
How Bee died and what happened afterward are the mysteries at the heart of the film, and like many horror movies, this one is structured as a gradual reveal of that mystery. There’s one little girl named Janice (Talitha Bateman) who’s suffering from the effects of polio and feels physically separate from the group, and from the moment they move into the house, there is a presence of some sort that targets her. It’s a fairly straightforward version of things, and if you’ve seen the rest of the films in the Conjuring series, then you have a pretty good idea of the type of entities you’ll see here. I wasn’t surprised by anything in the film, but I was consistently impressed by how good Sandberg is at staging each scare as a discrete and important beat. He doesn’t rush anything, and it makes a real difference here.
However, there’s a moment in Annabelle: Creation that will likely cost it in the long run, in terms of how people think of it. As skilled as everything is, there’s a beat where something truly terrible happens, and then everyone heads back inside and goes to bed as if nothing happened. It’s insanity. There is no world in which these characters would behave this way, and if they did, then there’s no one who would say they are blameless in what happens to them. I hate moments like that in horror films because it undermines my ability to empathize. If you’re living in a house that you already suspect is haunted and someone dies in a violent manner that could not possibly have been natural, then why would you just shrug it off and go to bed?
Right now, as every studio chases the idea of larger connected universes on film, New Line and Warner Bros. are being very smart about how they’re managing the world around their Conjuring films. Ed and Lorraine Warren are strong characters (in the films, as I’m not even remotely talking about the real people here), and from the moment they opened the first film with the story of Annabelle and the room they have full of cursed items, it was clear that the studios had a potential franchise on their hands.
The first Annabelle was awful, though, and it feels like that misstep was important for the producers. By doing it then, they realized that there is something more important than tying story points together. It’s far more important that there be a consistent feeling between the films, so that when you’re telling an audience that this is set in the universe of The Conjuring, the audience can trust that they’ll have an equivalent experience. The first Annabelle was a cheap knock-off, built around fake tension and lame, slow-burn non-scares. This time, there’s plenty of payoff, and once the film hits that third act, it’s fairly relentless in terms of pace and tone. Yes, you have to shrug off some weak narrative decisions if you’re going to enjoy it, but that’s okay. In the end, what matters most is that the film has one thing on its mind, and it is aggressive about delivering those scares.
Give Sandberg a great script someday, and the results should be stunning. Until then, Annabelle: Creation is fine, if rather uninspired.
Running time: 109 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic