With Disney making major bank off the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the better part of a decade, it was inevitable other movie studios would try to do the same. Universal tried to kickstart their so-called “Dark Universe” with The Mummy just two months ago (they failed). Just as moviegoers have begun to lose interest, Paramount hopes to turn the Transformers series into a shared universe. (Get ready for Bumblebee to have his own standalone movie next year.) Warner Bros. looked like they were best situated to match Marvel superhero for superhero, but stumbled repeatedly over the last few years, finally righting the figurative ship earlier this summer with Wonder Woman. But what’s better than one cinematic universe? Two, of course. Which brings us to Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to the prequel/spin-off of what’s being called the “Conjuring Universe.” Here’s the thing: If Annabelle: Creation, a modestly budgeted, period-set, old-school supernatural flick directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), is any indication, Warner Bros. just might succeed and at a fraction of the comic-book/superhero price.
Working from a screenplay written by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle), Sandberg delivers more frights per minute since The Conjuring hit multiplexes four summers ago. He uses every tool or trick in the horror director’s arsenal, starting with an old, rundown house in the literal middle of nowhere filled with more shadows than light (even during the day), perpetually creaky floorboards, doors that open and shut by themselves, a labyrinthine layout, heart-tugging orphans (because they’re orphans with nowhere else to go), an older, slightly off-kilter couple hiding a big secret, and, of course, the “Annabelle” of the title, an ultra-creepy doll who has the nasty habit of showing up where she’s least wanted. Director James Wan introduced Annabelle, a demon-possessed doll, in a brief prologue to The Conjuring, but Annabelle obviously struck a chord with moviegoers. Short of killer, demonic clowns and maybe nuns in white face, there’s nothing creepier than an ultra-creepy, haunted doll.
Annabelle’s first solo effort had its shares of scares, but next to The Conjuring I and II, it felt, looked, and sounded second- or even third-rate, probably because it was. A better script and a more talented, better-attuned-to-the-material director, not to mention a killer premise (but we’ll mention it, anyway) involving not just Annabelle’s backstory (an ill-fated couple who pray to the wrong higher power) or a ghost girl, but strong, well-written central characters in two best friends/orphans, Janice (Talitha Bateman), a girl recovering from polio, and Linda (Lulu Wilson). Early on, they make a pact to be adopted together, wishful thinking considering Janice’s disability (she needs a leg brace and crutch to move around). Of course, Janice’s disability makes her easier prey for whatever demon’s haunting Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins’ (Miranda Otto) Home for Wayward Girls.
Sandberg milks Janice’s mobility or lack thereof for all its worth. A chair lift helps Janice get from floor to floor, but once it’s introduced, it’s all but a certainty that Janice and the lift are in for a rude encounter with an extremely rude demon at some point. Janice’s infirmity also means she’s left alone for large parts of the day, perfect for being spooked by whatever haunts the Mullins home. And that’s all before Janice, guilty of nothing except being overly curious, finds Annabelle in a locked room. Why the Mullins would invite Janice and the other girls to their haunted home knowing full well what awaits them if Annabelle gets loose isn’t so much a mystery as a weak spot in Dauberman’s screenplay, but moviegoers are more than likely to hand-wave it away. Plot holes, illogic, and idiot plotting tend to be forgiven if moviegoers get what they want: Carefully calibrated shocks and scares that almost always feel earned. That alone helps to build goodwill for whatever other flaws Annabelle: Creation might have, including a goodwill-wasting epilogue that ties Annabelle: Creation’s last scene with Annabelle’s first scene, and a post-credit scene that serves as nothing more than an ad for next year’s entry in The Conjuring Universe: The Nun.
Annabelle: Creation also deserves credit for making solid use of an unevenly talented cast. The young actresses who play Janice and Linda respectively, Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson, deliver pro-level performances. They both give grounded, believable performances. The other young actresses in the cast deliver less than memorable performances, but they’re also marginal, almost tangential to the central story, only playing a significant role late in the film when Sandberg decides to pull out all of the horror stops, putting multiple characters in peril at the same time, but in different locations. Sandberg juggles the various story strands with the fluidity and skill rarely seen in horror directors interested more in scaring audiences by any means necessary than actually building a scare shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene, and sequence-by-sequence. Sandberg might not be on Wan’s level yet, but it’s only a matter of time and experience before that happens. Like Wan, though, hopefully Sandberg will take his skill set to other genres in desperate need of competent crafts-men and women to deliver more than barely competent, anonymous, ultimately forgettable films.