For a dozen years Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther grieve the tragic loss of their seven-year-old daughter, Annabelle, until eventually they decide to open up their house to a group of orphans recently left homeless. The orphan girls soon experience horrific hauntings at the Mullins’ abode, and discover that Annabelle may be to blame.
I had high hopes going into Annabelle: Creation. Early reviews were uniformly positive, and last year’s major horror prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil, surprised me, not by being better than its predecessor—an extremely low bar to clear—but by being positively riveting and entirely enjoyable as a standalone film. Unfortunately Annabelle: Creation, though it similarly unfolds decades before its predecessor, doesn’t replicate this success. It is oddly paced and only intermittently engaging, with a couple of scary sequences but not enough real character development or plot elaboration to surprise or thrill. The cinematography is sharp, and the set design is excellent, if perhaps showy, but the script and acting are middle-of-the-road. As he did in Lights Out, director David F. Sandberg conjures up plenty of ambiance with lighting effects and camera movements, but his technique can at times feel more technically interesting (for example, the long crane shot over the church roof that swoops down to street level with the Mullins) than intrinsic to the story.
Fans of the Conjuring universe, of which this is the fourth film (after The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle), will want to watch it regardless, and will almost certainly enjoy it more than casual viewers, who may struggle with the tedious first half. The woman from whom I purchased our tickets at the theater booth, for example, confided that she loves the Conjuring-verse and that she’d already seen Annabelle: Creation four times. Meanwhile, this magazine’s editor walked out partway through. I’m somewhere in between these extremes, though leaning toward the desultory end. There was a lot to like in the first two Conjuring movies; I found the initial spin-off, Annabelle, forgettable. This entry, I’d say, is somewhat better than the latter but still not on the level of the two principal movies. In retrospect, I also feel like the trailer gives away far too many critical moments.
During the film’s initial sequence with the Mullins, I became hopeful that we were settling in for a rich psychological drama about this family, and that the slow pace was in service of a steady but continuous build-up of tension. Unfortunately the sudden death of their daughter brings this extended prologue to an abrupt end, and then we’re asked to start our process of emotional investment over again with Janice (well played by Talitha Bateman) and Linda (believably portrayed by Lulu Wilson) on their bus ride to the Mullins’ home. “Okay,” I thought. “Janice and Linda will be at the heart of the emotional journey.” Wrong again, it turns out. As the film’s storyline progresses, it becomes difficult to care much about any of the characters because they’re insufficiently fleshed out and there’s no clear protagonists.
Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is by turns dour, menacing, and enigmatic, but anything beyond his sense of loss remains out of view. Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and Esther (Miranda Otto) are similarly underwritten. Once Janice has been possessed by the demon, the film shifts into slasher-movie rhythms, albeit without the benefit of a clear antagonist to the evil. Janice’s possession means there’s no pay-off to the initial dynamic between her and Linda. Finally, Janice’s fear that she is weakest turns out to be validated by the film’s events, undermining Sister Charlotte’s inspirational speech.
This overall lack of focus is reflected in the film’s symbols. We soon learn that Annabelle the doll is merely a proxy instrument used by the demon, which can at will inhabit other objects, such as the barn scarecrow. Focusing heavily on the scarecrow during a late sequence saps the doll of symbolic power. Making the doll merely one of many possible vessels for the film’s evil also retroactively demystifies and decentralizes its importance in the other movies in which it appears. Which is a real shame, since the doll is so effectively creepy.
Because the film failed to fully engage me, I found myself distracted by questions of believability and consistency. For instance, what exactly is the Mullins’ economic situation during the twelve years in which they seemingly do nothing except pine after their daughter, invite a demon into their home, and trap it in a small closet? Does Mr. Mullins continue making other dolls throughout? If so, why don’t we see them being possessed? The Mullins seem to have a pretty large house and no financial needs. We get no sense of their day-to-day affairs. Then too, what exactly is their frame of mind, that they would think it’s a good idea to have orphaned girls living at their home when they know they’re hosting a demonic force, even if temporarily contained? There’s a mumbled line about “penance” to try and account for this, but in my view it’s not nearly enough justification for such muddled thinking. Regarding the girls: besides knowing that Janice’s mobility is impaired as a result of polio, what do we really learn about her and Linda, or any of the others? Their backstories are all broad—and in some cases invisible—strokes.
From a metaphysical perspective, I can’t help but ask: what happened to Annabelle’s actual spirit? We know that the deceased can exist as ghosts in this universe (see The Conjuring 2, for example), and I was disappointed that this movie explores only an essentially random demon exploiting the Mullins rather than telling the full story of Annabelle’s after-life. It’s hard to attain closure this way. The closing sting, which relates these events to Annabelle, is furthermore tonally jarring, and won’t mean much to anyone who hasn’t seen the other movie.
“Hope is a home unto itself,” intones Sister Charlotte. If that’s true then Annabelle: Creation becomes a pit stop rather than a destination.