If it seemed like the whole point of the Conjuring spinoff Annabelle was to explain the creation of the titular spooky doll…it was.
But what is the story behind that story, the origin of the inception of the creation of the beginning, as it were? That’s the question nobody asked, but director David Sandberg and Annabelle writer Gary Dauberman go ahead and answer it anyway in the definitively titled Annabelle: Creation.
The result is a kinda-fun, medium-scary movie that leans heavily on the competent execution of familiar horror tropes to be an okay version of exactly what it purports to be. That’s not a ringing endorsement of a piece of art, but in terms of both capitalism and pulp entertainment, it counts as a square deal.
If you’re like the rest of us rubes, you saw Annabelle and thought that the doll came to be possessed by the evil passed along during a Manson Family-style cult massacre. That was far and away the most memorable sequence of the first Annabelle, and also a nice nod to the tiny king of ’80s killer doll movies, Chuckie himself, who gets inhabited with the spirit of voodoo killer Brad Dourif.
But if you fell for that schtick, well, there’s a sucker born every minute. See, the doll was spooky way before that. Turns out the whole story starts out—at least until some direct-to-Redbox sequel says otherwise—with kindly dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia, evoking a real “Wait, is that Anthony LaPaglia?” vibe). Mullins is a god-fearing guy who just really loves to make dolls, like normal family men do. He even has the family to prove it: wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and their daughter (Samara Lee).
Alas, the dollmaker’s family meets a tragic fate. The girl is killed in an accident, and Esther is injured in another one. Years later Mullins and his mysteriously deformed, now bedridden wife turn their spooky, isolated home into a very small orphanage for girls overseen by a single harried nun (Stephanie Sigman).
Among the house’s new Dickensian residents is a pair of best friends, polio-hobbled Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her faithful sidekick Linda (Lulu Wilson, also in the better-than-it-should-be prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil). Trouble starts once they start messing around in the dollmaker’s dead daughter’s eerily preserved room and they find a particular favorite doll of hers.
We’ve hit franchise overload when The Conjuring has spawned its own “cinematic universe”— a sequel, a spinoff with its own prequel, and now a second spinoff with the upcoming The Nun. That said, unless you’re reinventing the killer-doll subgenre, we’re mostly still treading in the territory of Talky Tina and the Zuni Fetish Doll from old network TV shows (Twilight Zone and Trilogy of Terror, respectively).
Don Mancini has evolved the Child’s Play series into an admirably weird bit of horror meta-comedy, with a seventh installment, Cult of Chucky, due later this year. Nobody involved in Annabelle: Creation is looking to reinvent the wheel, or the killer doll, or much of anything else. But if your ambition for your murderous mannequin isn’t that high, does it really matter either way if it’s in a “shared universe” or has some broader connection to other mediocre movies?
Not in the least.
It’s not exactly admirable, but it is impressive Dauberman has been able to crank out two entire prequels based on a character whose original appeal was that she was only in a brief, ten-minute film within a film, which was itself The Conjuring’s most ingenious feature. Three full hours of Annabelle later is both extremely unnecessary but also some kind of accomplishment.
And whereas cinematographer-turned-not-very-good-director John Leonetti wasn’t able to do much with the first Annabelle outside of that tense opening scene, Sangberg significantly improves on his last film, Lights Out, which also stretched a neat idea too thin. He makes Annabelle: Creation work though, or work well enough that watching it doesn’t feel like work, anyway.
You only thought the Conjuring spinoff Annabelle told you the real story about the origins of the spooky, titular doll. Probably because you paid $10 in 2014 to have someone tell you the real story. Well, they were yanking your crank, because this prequel to a prequel of the spinoff tells the really real story of how a regular spooky looking doll became an actual spooky doll. It all goes back to Anthony LaPaglia as a grieving dollmaker who opens up his creepy country home to a group of orphan girls. That’s a recipe for terror of one kind of another, and here director David Sandberg (Lights Out) does a better than average job of conveying it through a series of familiar but competently executed horror tropes. It unambitiously delivers the goods. Also featuring a fun turn from Miranda Otto as LaPaglia’s mysteriously deformed wife.