Much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, the latest entry in The Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation, has quickly earned the reputation of being a huge improvement on the film that came before it, to the point where its predecessor is entirely skippable so that you can get to the good stuff. 2014’s Annabelle was indeed a huge letdown even for the most dedicated of evil doll horror films, essentially burying what’s an incredibly powerful villain design under a hopelessly generic Rosemary’s Baby riff nobody asked for. That setup made it near effortless for its prequel, Annabelle: Creation, to exceed expectations, something Lights Out director David F. Samberg does with ease. Samberg’s slick production design & impressive control over jump scares & haunted house atmosphere makes for a surprisingly decent Annabelle corrective, delivering an evil doll-themed major studio horror similar to the machine-like precision of last year’s financially beastly adaptation of IT. As someone who’s always a sucker for evil doll horror as a genre, however, I have to admit I still don’t believe the Annabelle franchise is living up to its full potential. Creation is a well-made major studio horror movie, but it’s one that largely ignores the brilliant design of the evil doll at its center; it’s hardly an evil doll movie at all.
A 1940s doll maker & his religiously faithful wife lose their young daughter (named Annabelle, duh) in a freak accident, sending their lives into a depressive tailspin. Over a decade later, they open their home as a makeshift orphanage out of religious duty, bringing a fresh crop of young girls & their corresponding caretaker nun into the now-haunted house. Enter the titular doll Annabelle, whom the dead daughter’s spirit has taken residence in and uses to scare & maim her soul-weary parents’ new boarders. Unfortunately, the doll itself is used more as set dressing and a talisman than a direct threat in the film’s various scares & kills. Samberg has a sharp mind for tapping into the nightmare logic of a scared child: lights go out without explanation, hallways stretch into infinity, traditional sources of terror like a ghost under a sheet or the crack between a bed & wall are reinforced with a genuine sense of dread. This collection of haunted house scares feels entirely separate from Annabelle herself, however. Instead of directly using her in the film’s kills, Creation brings in other threats in the form of creepy nuns & demons made of black smoke, unsure how to deliver on the basic pleasures of a creepy doll horror flick.
As with a lot of films in the post-MCU mode of franchise filmmaking, Annabelle: Creation feels like it’s torn in too many directions trying to satisfy its position in a larger, franchised story. The movie concludes with a lengthy, unnecessary epilogue connecting it to the opening minutes of the first Annabelle feature, establishing above-and-beyond continuity for a film practically no one remembers or values. It’s also tasked with teasing an upcoming horror film about demonic nuns to be set in The Conjureverse, plainlly titled The Nun. What really bothered me, though, is that Creation finds its scares in the dollmaker’s haunted home, not the evil doll he created, which connects the film to the haunted house themes of the original The Conjuring movie at the expense of a super creepy doll that’s used as a prop instead of an active player. I can totally back Annabelle: Creation as a well-made major studio horror film and an improvement on the previous Annabelle entry. Hell, I’d even cite it as an improvement on Samberg’s work in Lights Out, a film I found to be a thematically repugnant carbon copy of The Babadook. It’s still not as great as a proper Annabelle film could be, though, which won’t arrive until this franchise involves its killer-looking doll in its onscreen kills, something that should’ve been a given from the start.