Annabelle: Creation

Annabelle: Creation ★★½

“It’s coming after me.”

At the dark heart of ‘Annabelle: Creation’ (the origin-story prequel to a spin-off of an ongoing ‘Conjuring’ industrial complex) is a doll that doesn’t do much but observe the terror that befalls the people of the film - all with a cruelly malignant rictus grin. Immobile and aphasic, this conduit for a demonic force is an oddly limited figure around which to build a horror franchise. But where John R. Leonetti’s ‘Annabelle’ struggled to figure out how to integrate his eponymous figurine into its satanic-horror goings-on, David F. Sandberg comes up with an elegant solution in ‘Creation’: to treat the doll as a blackly funny visual gag, a ghoulish punchline to the film’s cunningly effective scares.

Yes, Gary Dauberman’s screenplay makes sure to tie itself into the broader ‘Conjuring’ cinematic universe, drawing on the same demonic mythos established in ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘Annabelle,’ but the film is very much its own entity. Set decades before and miles away from the events of ‘Annabelle,’ ‘Creation’ mines an unusual western gothic vein of horror that largely eschews the jump-scare shock tactics of James Wan’s original in favor of simmering suspense: as in a scene in which a girl throws a sheet over Annabelle and watches aghast as the doll seems to walk toward her, the sheet slowly falling away with each subsequent step until nothing is revealed underneath.

The film often feels less like a successor to the muddled ‘Annabelle’ than an expansion and refinement of Sandberg’s ‘Lights Out.’ Like that film, ‘Creation’ is a haunted-house horror story that plays on our primal fear of the dark. Employing crisp, low-light compositions, Sandberg suggests a powerful evil lurking in the deep-black pools of negative space that dominate the frame. And ‘Creation’ isn’t above throwing in all manner of tried-and-true horror chestnuts (from a monstrous scarecrow to a grisly crucifixion to an unsettling “Phantom of the Opera” mask), but ‘Creation’ syncretizes these disparate elements with a consistent tone of giddy malevolence that’s bolstered by killer timing and a coherent sense of space. Scenes like one in which a character desperately tries to descend the stairs in a slow-moving chairlift before being brusquely jolted out of the seat demonstrate Sandberg’s penchant for patiently coiling the tension before a sudden and startling release.

The film isn’t without its flaws: the polished depiction of orphans is unconvincing to the point of laughable; many of the basic plot details don’t make much sense (why does the isolated couple at the center of the narrative invite a bunch of children into their house when they know there’s a readily releasable demonic spirit living there?); and Sandberg doesn’t quite stick the landing, providing a too-easy resolution and an arbitrary “House of Usher” riff to close things out. Meanwhile, the characters are primarily blank outlines that Sandberg makes little attempt to fill in. If the film could be accused of lacking emotional depth, thematic heft, or even subtext, it scarcely matters. By paring away any extraneous elements, ‘Creation’ successfully consolidates its singular goal: pure, unrelenting terror.