Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Mirando Otto, Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson
Directed by David Sandberg
Creepy dolls are pretty much guaranteed to scare, if not scar – Annabelle: Creation producer James Wan has said the clown doll in the original Poltergeist movie has seared his soul and in fact still has an influence on him as a filmmaker. For me it was the eerily evil Talky Tina, from an old episode of “The Twilight Zone” (Living Doll). And then there was Fats, the manipulative ventriloquist dummy in Magic (based on the excellent novel by William Goldman). After the 1970s and with the explosion of the slasher genre, we got much more terrorizing toys – like the relentless Chucky from Child’s Play and the murderous minions in Puppet Master.
Annabelle was first introduced in The Conjuring, directed by Wan and based in the real-life lore of ghostbusters and demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. She was so spooky, she got her own spinoff in 2014 with Annabelle, directed by John R. Leonetti. The movie was, by most accounts, a misfire. But the deadly dolly was just too scary-good to retire, so now there is Annabelle: Creation, which is her origin tale.
This period piece opens even longer ago, when a dollmaker named Samuel Mullins (LaPaglia) and his gentle wife, Esther (Otto), lose their only child – a daughter named Annabelle – in a tragic accident. The grieving couple makes a deal with the devil, so to speak, and their child returns in the form of a glorious doll carved by Samuel’s own hand and dressed in clothes Esther sewed herself. At first, it’s a bittersweet return… but then, as you can guess, Annabelle shows her true demonic nature. The couple shutters her away within the walls of their prairie mcmansion and tries to forget about her.
Twenty years later, Sam and Esther decide to open their hearts and their home to a displaced nun and girls from an orphanage that has been closed. Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is young and vibrant, more of a friend to the children than a figure of supreme authority. The two girls we get to know best, Janice (Bateman) and Linda (Wilson), are both downright cherubic – with their blonde hair and sunny dispositions, they put the canvasses of Raphael Sanzio to shame. Annabelle senses these sweet souls and does everything in her power to extinguish their light.
Though the girls and the nun are the beacons of good in Annabelle: Creation, they are painted with enough texture to be relatable, believable, and ultimately worth caring for once Annabelle sets her supernatural sights on them. While the talents of LaPaglia and Otto are more or less wasted in these secondary roles, it’s okay because Sigman, Bateman, and Wilson are so excellent. Bateman, especially. She has to express a massive character arc, not only emotionally, but physically. When she arrives at the Mullins home, Janice is wearing leg braces because of polio. After a few bouts with Annabelle, she’s wheelchair-bound… and it only gets worse.
While I do prefer Wan’s style of slowly-eked suspense, Sandburg’s scares are successful. He straddles a nice cinematic line between the measured burn of 1970s auteur horror and today’s hit-and-run shocks tailor-made for the ADD generation. I found the story just a bit messy. But Sandberg has said that when the Annabelle: Creation script came to him, it was a lot longer and had everyone’s backstories – thank goodness, the director made it leaner and meaner. (And it is quite mean… rated R, and no fucks given when it comes to killing kids.)
Annabelle herself is pretty much just a doll. She is not shown walking or talking. She simply appears and disappears. She is, in fact, the puppet master of the ghoulish goings-on. There are some other demonic apparitions – a scarecrow, a shadowy witch-demon (played by franchise fave Joseph Bishara), bone-creaking possessed kiddies, and even the Conjuring 2 Nun makes a brief appearance! – all of them quite effective and doled out at just the right intervals between the human story at the center.
Aside from the performances, I most enjoyed the cinematography. DP Maxime Alexandre is a genius, and I’m a longtime admirer of his work. He teams up quite a lot with Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension, the Hills Have Eyes, and the Maniac remakes, The 9th Life of Louis Drax, to name a few sumptuously-shot films stemming from their collaborations). The visuals are supported by music made from the mind of a composer who’s period-savvy; Benjamin Wallfisch also worked on Hidden Figures, Bobby, and The Little Prince.
While Annabelle: Creation was not perfect for me (I seldom give five-star reviews), it’s definitely a worthy entry – if not one of the best – in the Conjuring universe of horror. I’d watch it again. Annabelle: Creation should be seen late at night, in the dark.