Rated R for horror violence and terror. One hour, 49 minutes.
Publication date: Publication Date Aug. 11, 2017
Review by Peter Canavese
Demon-possessed doll Annabelle first appeared in the 2013 horror film "The Conjuring," then got her own titular spinoff film a year later. To "flesh out" an origin story -- one blessedly free of "this really happened, we swear!" nonsense -- the prequel "Annabelle: Creation" backs up a dozen years to the mid-1950s (and a dozen years before that for its prologue). Having "nowhere else to go," six orphan girls accompany Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman of "Narcos") to a remote, rambling farmhouse. Their hosts: retired dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his invalid wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), who lost their daughter in a tragic accident and have been haunted, figuratively or literally, ever since.
When leg-braced Little Orphan Janice (Talitha Bateman) discovers big ol' creepy doll Annabelle, the human girl unleashes a supernatural horror the Mullinses have attempted to bless away and board up. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman ("Annabelle") seems afraid to commit to the Mullinses being a few sandwiches short of a picnic, lest the grieving parents come off as unsympathetic. This choice makes the premise absurdly contrived: We're never convinced that it makes any sense to have kept the Annabelle doll intact on their property, much less that they would take on a gaggle of orphan girls while showing little if any parental pull toward them.
Impractical psychology aside, Dauberman gives talented Swedish-born horror director David F. Sandberg ("Lights Out") a highly practical playground for chills and spills: the tinkling bell of largely unseen Esther; malfunctioning household equipment like a dumbwaiter and a chair lift; a vinyl record of "You Are My Sunshine;" a conspicuously large well; a barn with a scarecrow; and more deep, dark shadows than you can shake a failing flashlight at. The farmhouse proves to be Sandberg's wheelhouse, and he's skilled enough to make something intermittently gripping of the haunted-house boilerplate.
Unsettlingly lively dolls have been a horror staple dating back at least as far as "Twilight Zone" episodes like "The After Hours," "The Dummy" and "Living Doll." Indeed, "Annabelle: Creation" gets good mileage from its throwback feel: the period setting and an emphasis on girls' games, from hide-and-seek to the slumber-party standard of ghost stories by flashlight under a sheet. In and of themselves, the trappings of "The Conjuring" series (joint-crunching contortions, say, evil-spirit peekaboo, and an unsubtle cross motif) have gotten awfully old, and even after a patient buildup, they wear out their welcome ahead of schedule. On paper, "Annabelle: Creation" lays out lazy character development and logic, but on screen, it gets the job done more often than not as an unpretentious talk-back-to-the-screen audience picture.