IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 109 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Many years ago Samuel and Esther Mullins lost their daughter Bee in a car accident. Now, the still grieving parents decide to provide shelter for an orphaned group of young girls, with Sister Charlotte in charge. The youngest of the children are Linda and Janice, who’s dealing with the crippling effects of polio, putting distance between her and her able-bodied roommates. With Samuel a retired doll maker, Janice enters a forbidden room one night and discovers one of his creations, which adopts the creepy habit of mysteriously appearing in different places. She also begins to catch glimpses of a ghost and frightening events in the house start to occur more frequently and with more intensity….
Annabelle: Creation probably shouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is. I certainly didn’t expect much from this prequel to a prequel, but within just a few minutes it became apparent that this was a pretty well crafted horror film which was sometimes [hurrah!] genuinely frightening. I think that most will agree that Annabelle, except for that really rather unsettling bit where the lift kept stopping at the same floor, was a considerable disappointment despite its big success at the box office. It certainly wasn’t terrible, but it did feel like it was made just because they decided we had to have a film about a character who was in the hit that was The Conjuring, rather than also trying to make a good chiller. So you can forgive my apprehension about this sequel [sorry, prequel]. But then again director David F. Sandberg did a good job with Lights Out despite its script problems, so perhaps I should have known. In any case, something went right with Annabelle: Creation and I left the cinema reasonably satisfied.
Now of course I don’t want to give the impression that this is some kind of modern horror classic because it certainly isn’t. It’s really little more than a series of scare sequences, most of which we’ve seen many times before, while the story’s pretty old hat too. However, you could also say that about The Conjuring, and here the warmed over rehash of tried and tested tropes still manages to have the desired effect for much of the time. There’s one moment where the girls decide to play hide and seek, something which normally ought to make anybody who’s seen alot of horror films yawn, but instead one is filled with some considerable apprehension because of the good frights we’ve already had and the really creepy atmosphere that been created. One reason, I suspect, is why it works as effectively as it does is because the characters who are being terrorised are mostly young girls [and one of them’s disabled too]. Having children in peril almost always tends to add something unless the performers in question can’t act their parts well enough. Fortunately the latter certainly isn’t the case with this movie. Here, Talitha Bateman and LuLu Wilson [who also impressed in Ouija: Origin Of Evil] almost always convince, especially when they are together where you really feel the sisterly bond that these two girls have. And this means that, when their characters are being terrorised or even attacked, it’s sometimes quite harrowing to watch.
It all starts up pretty quickly with a spine tingling moment where Janice goes up the stairs while we just about glimpse a figure moving about in the darkness of the landing. Sandberg, for the first of several times, repeats the simple but effective device that he used a few times in Lights Out: of having one side of the screen in darkness so you’re on edge as to what you’re going to glimpse in it. Soon after, a blurred ghost half-seen behind Janice really will give you the heebie-jeebies, though I couldn’t understand why on earth Janice, having gone to a room she’s been told not to go into and been absolutely terrified in there, soon after returns to the room and on her own! O well, we soon get something in a white sheet terrorising Janice, and what makes this moment work so well is that for once [okay, there’s that bit in Paranormal Activity 3] it’s not one of the other girls trying to scare her. See what I mean, it’s mostly things we’ve seen before, but well employed. I’ve often been critical of the way many modern horror movies tend to lazily prioritise jump scares above everything else. This kind of horror filmmaking rarely works very well on a second viewing [Insidious, which floored me when I first saw it, being a good example], while a truly fine horror film should repeatedly frighten and disturb. I could have done without one or two less of these moments in Annabelle: Creation, but some do really pack a punch, especially two which literally come out of nowhere. And it’s not as if that’s all we get horror-wise, or that we don’t occasionally take some time out from this to get to know Janice and Linda, who talk about their old orphange and wanting to find good homes together in some very sweet scenes.
Of course initially Janice doesn’t seem to be believed even if Samuel and Esther may just possibly know more than they’re letting on. Eventually Linda witnesses some stuff herself and the film interestingly then chooses to change and adopt her point of view instead. Meanwhile we’re wondering about the nature of this accident that has left Esther unable to walk, bedridden and wearing a plastic mask covering one half of the side of her face? The latter device is, by the way, something especially well utilised by Sandberg who understands how well letting us see very little, then gradually showing us a bit more, can work. I don’t know if this was intentional, but these moments, with Esther often glimpsed through a sea through curtain, couldn’t help for me but to evoke Suspiria‘s Helena Markos, while come to think of it there’s an earlier bit [possibly the most frightening moment in the whole thing, so I won’t describe it fully] where two of the older girls are whispering that also seems to recall that classic. Again, this may not have been intended, but it’s clear proof that Sandberg knows how to make the most of his set-ups, knows how to scare, and in this film is trying his very best to make up for script deficiencies which do sadly rear their head in the final third, though maybe that term is a little too harsh. The basic story is okay and has a kind of logic to it [except for the Mullins’s being incredibly irresponsible], but none of the explanations came as much of a surprise for this critic. And a coda fails to add anything. A shot five minutes before of a car bonnet being closed would have concluded the film perfectly.
Some of the CGI is a bit distracting, but this film does a fine job of turning childhood toys into objects of fear, including even – for goodness sake – a popgun. Then there’s the most memorable use of a stairlift since Gremlins, and you certainly won’t be laughing this time. On the other hand when someone asks the demon [it’s no surprise that a previously seen demon returns is it?] what it wants and it replies: “TO STEAL YOUR SOUL”, one’s reaction is probably to chuckle more than anything else, though it’s a rare moment that doesn’t at least in part come off. The ‘R’ rating is employed with restraint. The most brutal bits, and there are some, occur offscreen, but it does mean that when an incident is focused upon it has real impact and there doesn’t need to be any holding back. There’s a genuinely cringeworthy finger snapping scene which I won’t describe in detail but which is one of the nastiest movie moments of the year. One very praiseworthy thing is that screenwriter Gary Dauberman has resisted the temptation to fill the running time with nods to the currently expanding Conjuring universe, though the script was probably written before they decided to go all mad with this stuff. There’s a few nods but that’s it. This hopefully means that one will be able to wholly enjoy all the films in this series that they make even if one hasn’t seen all of the others, this certainly not being the case with, especially, the Marvel films which often seem to exist just to take us further in a big overall story and therefore can’t really work as standalone pictures. Annabelle: Creation stands fine on its own, yet also manages to fit snugly into the same world as the other movies.
Cinematography Maxime Alexandre does a great job throughout the film, sometimes encouraged by his director to often do lengthy takes. Another good device he and Sandberg employ is to mix mirrors into long shots. He’s achieved a fine balance between having a personal style and fitting snugly into the now very familiar current style of commercial horror filmmaking. Annabelle: Creation is more one of those films where, if asked about it, you reply “this” and “this happened”, rather than what it was really about. It won’t work anywhere near as well a second time around. It’s not as good as either Conjuring film, but is proof that there can still be rather lot of life in stuff we’ve already seen over and over.