A prequel nobody asked for to a spin-off nobody needed, “Annabelle: Creation” fills in the demonic backstory for the creepy doll seen in “The Conjuring.” Sort of. Instead of enriching this universe in any meaningful way, director David F. Sandberg’s gimmick-driven nail-biter effectively serves just to push the $800 million franchise past the $1 billion mark. Debuting at the Los Angeles Film Festival nearly two months prior to its Aug. 11 release, this effective yet empty-headed horror movie goes to show how eager audiences are to be scared, and how even an unsightly doll can do the trick when the spirit is willing.
Working backwards in time, this fourth film in producer James Wan’s fast-expanding “The Conjuring” franchise (which already has two more installments on the way) takes place in the mid-’50s, following a 12-years-earlier prologue through which we discover the tragedy that inspired heartbroken dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his bedridden wife (Mirando Otto) to invite half a dozen vulnerable orphans into their home. How could the couple have known that their dead daughter has no intention of sharing her toys? And would it even be an issue if these new guests would mind Mr. Mullins’ instructions and keep out of Annabelle’s old room?
Naturally, a locked door is all the invitation the orphans need to go exploring, and so long stretches of the movie are spent with audiences nervously exclaiming either “Why!?” or “Who does that!?” as the girls (six young actresses of wildly uneven ability) keep going back to the room where the demon lies in wait. And yet, it helps to remember, as Patrick Wilson’s paranormal expert put it in “The Conjuring,” “There’s no such thing as Annabelle. There never was.” Rather, Mr. Mullins’ nightmare-inducing creation became the conduit for an unholy force hellbent on stealing human souls — and while the doll can’t do much more than turn its head and pop up where it’s least wanted, its demon puppetmaster has seemingly unlimited powers.
Clearly aware that he’s been stuck with a lazy script (from “Annabelle” writer Gary Dauberman), yet eager to capitalize on the momentum of “Lights Out,” gifted Swedish director Sandberg appears to be using this project as practice, trying nearly every trick in the book, while never repeating the same stunt twice. That means it’s virtually impossible to figure out “the rules” that govern Annabelle’s behavior. Better just to embrace the fact we’ve come to be startled and let Sandberg do his thing.
The location itself recalls Andrew Wyeth’s iconic “Christina’s World” painting, which depicts a crippled young woman lying in a field, her back to the viewer, while a two-story farmhouse looms in the distance. Though that exact image never appears, thanks to key contributions from production designer Jennifer Spence and DP Maxime Alexandre (delivering chills in broad daylight), the same wistful feeling seems to possess the film, whose polio-stricken protagonist, Janice (Talitha Bateman, appropriately tough), spends her afternoons watching the other girls have fun. Stuck upstairs with nothing to do, she can’t help but investigate the forbidden room, unleashing the long-dormant demon in the process.
At one point, visiting Annabelle’s Victorian-looking chamber for what feels like the umpteenth time, Janice finds herself face to face with what looks to be the dead girl. “Will you help me?” the ghostly stranger asks, to which Janice helpfully replies, “What do you need?” “Your soul!” shrieks the creature and proceeds to chase the handicapped girl around the house. To get up- and downstairs, Janice must use an old-fashioned chair lift, which makes for an elaborate scene in which she wrestles with the controls, while an ambiguous shadowy presence closes in on her.
Surprisingly, Annabelle’s demon kills only two people (it could have wiped out the entire cast, considering that none of them are needed in the subsequent films), and had Sandberg been slightly less gory about it, the movie might have landed a softer PG-13 rating — which seems like the ideal fit for a movie wherein the majority of characters are minors. By going with an R rating, Sandberg seems to be promising that rather than being adopted, the orphans will soon be joining their parents, when in fact, “Lights Out” was the scarier film, if only because of the coherent logic he managed to create about a ghost that inhabited the darkness.
Here, Sandberg once again manipulates lighting, composition and suspense, framing shots in such a way that we’re constantly searching the shadows for hints of movement, while drawing out scenes for maximum tension. He loves to make out-of-focus shapes budge in the background, and instructs his actors either to whisper or otherwise speak their dialogue so softly that we lean in to catch their words, making ourselves that much more vulnerable to whatever might jump out of the frame (at some moments, the score falls entirely silent, while at others, it supplies precisely the jolt needed to make audiences jump).
Although the film opens with Mullins assembling the already demonic-looking doll in his workshop, the word “creation” in its title also conjures images of the Old Testament, a blasphemy Wan and company openly welcome, once again pitting this hellish evil against the relatively naïve faith of its characters. Early on, we learn that Annabelle was killed on her way home from church one Sunday, while later, a Mexican nun named Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) dispenses religious advice that has little effect on such a powerful demon. In one creepy gag, Charlotte shares a photo from her days in the convent, featuring a ghostly presence that can only be seen when the image is held at the right angle — no doubt a setup for the next film in the series, 2018’s “The Nun.”