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Annabelle Creation: Competent execution of horror lifts a dull story

Annabelle: Creation succeeds at telling the origin story of its titular doll with Sandberg’s enthusiastically staged horrors to convey spooky malice.

Last year’s Ouija: Origin of Evil set a beneficial trend for mainstream horror movies. Studios can ladle a lousy cash grab and profit from the stale playing field of August while gaining a fanbase and coverage for that property. Two or three years later, just hire a new and promising director to take on the second movie with more personality, breathing viability into technical features—in case the new script is still dull. This year, Annabelle: Creation follows the footstep of Origin of Evil (Lulu Wilson also appeared) with Lights Out director David F. Sandberg. The movie is, of course, not classic horror material. However, Sandberg proves, even for such an asinine premise, the fundamental and effective tricks in the horror textbook can still be appreciated if the director exercises them with determination and fervor.

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Creation doesn’t expand the Conjuring universe—one can’t go on these days without building one of these franchises—as much as backtracking the origin of Annabelle. James Wan’s 2013 The Conjuring turned the real-life Raggedy Ann doll into a hideous porcelain wickedness, and now we know how it all began. Creation takes place in the 50s, but it started 12 years earlier when dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) lost their beloved daughter Bee (Samara Lee) in a tragic road accident. In 1955, Samuel opens his rural farmhouse for Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman, Narcos) and six girls after their orphanage is closed.

The movie establishes its main character, Janice (Talitha Bateman), as a polio-afflicted girl. Her left leg is braced, and she has to move with a crutch. Her disability stretches several scenes, which, in turn, contributes to both her helplessness and the 109-minute duration. While this plight naturally asks for compassion from viewers, Sandberg still takes time to visualize her desperation. Because older girls’ intimidation makes the shy, isolated Janice feel inferior, she even pushes away her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Self-deprecation—Bateman communicates gloom and insecurity through her expressive eyes and quivering lips—shuts her in even more. Ergo, her weak mind is locked to humans and opened to evil forces.

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The house definitely hides something sinister because Samuel forbids everyone to wander the restricted area, which is Bee’s room. His presence seems to provide protection over the situation, but he can't control the ghostly intervention and Janice's curiosity. Another paternal figure, Father Massey (Mark Bramhall) disappears right away, lest he expel the spirit and conclude the movie fifteen minutes in. With this advantage, an aggressive spirit goes to unimaginable length to attain itself a human soul. To initiate and relate the series of events, it takes advantage of a game Bee used to play with Samuel when the poor kid was alive—a customized hide-and-seek with cryptic clues on pieces of paper. Though it can't harm anything protected by God's symbol, nothing stops the spirit from working its way there. For the first half, Creation conveniently works with a tiring genre trope: Janice is free to roam the house and fiddle the furniture without supervision or attention.

As Linda, the wide-eyed Wilson continues to impress with her innocent playfulness in dark rooms. Two girls make a pinky promise about getting adopted together and trade dolls so they can be with each other. This sisterly friendship binds the dull story by imbuing the audience with sympathetic resonance. The four older girls make up for a needlessly large ensemble cast, while the supportive Charlotte, who spends time with Janice and listens to her problem, benefits from an honest performance by Sigman. Using a creepy photo, she mentions a nun from her monastery, who must be Valak from The Conjuring 2, who is getting a spin-off. I can’t shake the feeling Charlotte brings Valak here as The Nun resembles the ghost that scares Carol (Grace Fulton) and Nancy (Phillipa Coulthard) at night and startles Janice in broad daylight.

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It's easy to blame the ghastly events on Samuel and Esther. But the story requires empathy to understand how grieving parents in a devout community feel about the loss of a child and how they respond if there is a chance to see her again. The 50s religious climate provides a window for the audience to accept things like exorcism and, in Annabelle's case, invitation to possess a certain memento.

For the visuals, Creation never looks boring. The girls address their fondness for Samuel and Esther’s large, circuitous house right away, but the designs keep us aware of identifiable locations. The front door has its canonical and rebellious religious symbols; Bee's room includes a music player, a large dollhouse, and that pink door into a wardrobe; the big bedroom contains four large beds for the older girls, Linda and Janice's room has the bunk bed and hanging doll parts; Charlotte’s room has a dumbwaiter. A stairlift, which assists Janice’s mobility, adds for a gripping scare sequence that will break her, physically and psychologically, because the weaknesses in body and mind are correlative.

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Sandberg, understanding the importance of geographical coherence, also employs wide shots and medium shots to establish spatial settings before luring us in elaborate scares. Like Flanagan in Origin of Evil, he stages the foreground/background interplay, aided by calculated blocking and practical lighting, to introduce agents of terror. When you think a hand will come from one place, it grabs our lead from another. Menacing shots are backed by the building score and sound design—the bell in Esther’s room is a nice touch—to avoid cheap, loud jump scares.

The major problem goes down in the movie’s third act. Kicked start by horrific deaths, the finale is lengthy and full of surfeit. In a series of scares in the barn with a haunted scarecrow, Sandberg applies his game of light and shadow again, but at least ten distracting minutes can be cut from the scene to focus on Linda.

Creation fixes the stupid plot hole from the first movie: is Annabelle the culprit or not? Unlike Chucky with his homicidal craziness, Annabelle is just a conduit of evil. The doll must be present for evil spirits to go on their killing spree. In all, this gruesome R-rated prequel succeeds at telling the origin story of Annabelle with Sandberg’s enthusiastically staged horrors to convey spooky malice.