For a genre that's obsessed with killing people off, horror certainly likes to bring things back to life. That applies to dearly departed children and their favourite dolls, and also to series' and spinoffs that would perhaps have been better left alone. All of the above combines in Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the first offshoot from The Conjuring films, and an exercise in formulaic franchise-building. Alas, a house full of orphaned girls aren't the only victims here.
Jumping back to the beginning of the unsettling toy's tale, this instalment also introduces its flesh-and-blood namesake. Nicknamed Bee, the seven-year-old daughter (Samara Lee) of Esther and Samuel Mullins (Aussie actors Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia) is rather fond of her inanimate best friend, a bond that seems to linger even after tragedy strikes. When a parentless group of youngsters — including the polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman), her close pal Linda (Lulu Wilson) and young nun Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) — are taken in by the still-grieving couple 12 years later, they come to discover just what that means. Needless to say, it involves a certain possessed plaything.
Arriving in 2014 in an eager bid to cash in on The Conjuring's success, the initial Annabelle film was a bland affair — and while this second effort improves on its predecessor, that's not saying much. Aware that the standard stalk-and-kill story didn't work the last time around, Lights Out director David F. Sandberg and returning writer Gary Dauberman instead decide that imitation is the best form of flattery and the best approach to the series as a whole, returning to the kids in a creepy home motif thatmade the main films in the franchise a hit. Had The Conjuring 2 not already been released, this could have stolen its title.
Secret rooms taunt curious minds; things go bump in the night; and sinister happenings start spooking everyone in the house. The film's narrative is as routine as expected, and doesn't ever pretend otherwise — with more titles in the series already greenlit, Annabelle: Creation doesn't really need to do anything more than just exist. It's the episodic approach to movie-making that's largely designed to keep the franchise in viewers' minds until the next chapter rolls around. Think of it like TV: every hour of a show isn't going to be a winner, but the powers-that-be know that doesn't matter as long as audiences stay primed for the next one.
As calculated and template-driven as Annabelle: Creation may be, the film does have one saving grace: Sandberg. Making his second Hollywood horror movie in two years, the director repeats his Lights Out fortunes, vastly improving a surprise-free plot through his mastery of mood and imagery. He knows how to make unnerving moments count through both patience and quick scares — and how to cultivate a convincing atmosphere of dread and unease with camera placement and lighting choices. Every obvious development, silly character choice and by-the-book performance works against him, but if Annabelle: Creation does one thing, it's make a case for Sandberg to be given much, much better material to work with. Let's just hope he leaves this particular franchise in his rear-view mirror.