Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Annabelle: Creation first published by Sight & Sound, September 2017

Review: Sequels tends to move forward, but with Annabelle – a child-size, creepy looking porcelain doll and also a conduit for a demon looking to possess souls and spread evil – it seems that the only way is backward. Her first on-screen appearance in the 1970-set prologue to James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) was also chronologically her last, ending with Annabelle locked away under glass in demonologist couple Lorraine and Ed Warren’s Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut (where the ‘real’ Annabelle, in fact a Raggedy Ann doll, still resides today). So logic dictated that John R. Leonetti’s spin-off film Annabelle (2014) had to be set prior to The Conjuring for Annabelle still to be unboxed – and given that the film finally catches up with events in The Conjuring, any follow-up to Annabelle would itself have to be a prequel to that prequel. Accordingly, most of Annabelle: Creation unfolds some 12 years before Annabelle, and is an origin story for the murderous mannequin.

It begins in the ‘Forties, with rural doll maker Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto) lovingly playing with their seven-year-old daughter Annabelle ‘Bee’ Mullins (Samara Lee), who is killed shortly afterwards in a road accident. Twelve years later, when Bee’s broken parents open their doors to six orphan girls in the care of Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), polio-afflicted Janice (Talitha Bateman) is drawn into Bee’s forbidden bedroom and unlocks the closet where a (now) familiar doll sits quietly, just waiting to be released into the world again.

Directed by franchise newcomer David F. Sandberg, and written by Gary Dauberman (who also penned Annabelle), Annabelle: Creation has literally nowhere to go beyond dovetailing neatly into an already prescribed future (which in the end, through a series of final-act convolutions, it does). Still, in anticipating Annabelle and The Conjuring, and also slyly alluding to The Conjuring 2‘s spin-off The Nun (scheduled for a 2018 release and also written by Dauberman), Sandberg’s film situates itself as creation myth for a shared horror fiction world (with a paranormal focus) to rival the MonsterVerse (also Warner) and Universal’s Dark Universe.

Closets aside, Annabelle: Creation may come determinedly devoid of subtext, but this lends it a kind of genre purity, which Sandberg maintains by ensuring that each and every one of its cliched set-pieces is played out to admirably well-crafted perfection. If the doll, with hard light, high contrast and sharp focus making her face look as menacing as possible, is not enough to induce the most absurd automatonophobia, the film also plays with self-animating Punch and Judy puppets and a particularly sinister scarecrow. As DP Maxime Alexandre’s camera cranes and weaves and swoops and circles, leaving what we fear most out of shot, out of focus or in the deepest, darkest shadows, Sandberg repeats the tricks of his feature debut Lights Out (2016), letting the cinematography itself participate in Bee’s peekaboo games of hide and seek.

Synopsis: Rural America, the 1940s. Annabelle ‘Bee’ Mullins, the seven-year-old daughter of god-fearing doll maker Samuel and Esther, is accidentally killed by a car. Twelve years later, Sister Charlotte arrives at the Mullins house with six orphan girls in her care. Crippled with polio and often left alone by the other girls, Janice is drawn, against Samuel’s strict instructions, to Bee’s locked bedroom, whose door is now mysteriously open. Inside, Janice finds a key in a doll’s house, and uses it to open a closet – which she is then unable to shut again – containing Bee’s doll Annabelle. Janice formally confesses what she has done to an amused Charlotte. Janice’s best friend Linda starts hearing and seeing something in the shadows, and even the older girls get spooked by a ghostly adult woman. After seeing a demonic Bee, Janice is thrown downstairs. Later she is pushed by the ghostly woman into Samuel’s workshop, where demonic Bee possesses her. When Linda reveals to Samuel that Janice has seen Bee and found her doll, Samuel rushes into the house, where all his bones break as Janice and Annabelle watch. A facially scarred Esther reveals that she and Samuel, in trying to bring Bee back from the dead, mistakenly summoned a demon which inhabits Annabelle. Everyone flees a knife-wielding Janice, who kills Esther. Charlotte seals Janice and Annabelle in the closet, but Janice escapes. She is adopted by Sharon and Pete Higgins under the false name Annabelle. Twelve years later, ‘Annabelle’ murders the Higgins.

© Anton Bitel