I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of studio horror films
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Forget possessed dolls and demons that WANT YOUR SOUL. The most unbelievable thing about Annabelle: Creation is that it hopes we will accept that its titular doll, that ghoul-faced monstrosity with the sunken eyes and sallow skin, was actually something lovingly created by a kindly dollmaker in the image of his beloved and beautiful little daughter, and — even more implausible still — that his customers positively clamored to take these dolls home and bestow them upon impressionable children.
I am not buying that at all.
With this sorry excuse for a horror movie, all creaking floors and faces in shadows and very little else, we are now two steps removed from 2013’s The Conjuring, wherein we first met Annabelle the scary doll as part of the creepy museum of eldritch objects curated by “demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens are real people — by all indications, real con artists — and that first movie was ostensibly a true story based on their work. (They are best known for — or perhaps “infamous for” is more accurate — their “inquiry” into the so-called Amityville Horror haunting.) But even therein, the supposedly haunted Annabelle doll is nothing like the actual one the Warrens have “paranormally investigated” (*snort*). The *cough* real *cough* Annabelle doll is a Raggedy Ann soft toy. The Annabelle of 2014’s Annabelle and now of Creation is a wooden doll clothed in a fine dress, and with a face that looks like what would happen to an American Girl doll after three years of meth abuse.
Anyway, Annabelle jumped back to 1969 to tells us how the doll ended up with the Warrens, a story that bears absolutely no resemblance to what the Warrens have said actually happened with the Raggedy Ann. And now Creation jumps further back, to the late 1940s (and then ahead again to the early 1960s; I have narrative whiplash), to tell us how to the doll came to be, and came to be possessed, and all pretense to plausibility, never mind factuality, has gone out the window, across the field, and down the inevitable creepy old well that will play a part in the third act.
In Creation’s brief opener, set in the 1940s, we meet that kindly dollmaker, Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia [Holding the Man, Happy Feet Two]; no, I too am unable to fathom what he is doing here), and his wife, sweet Mrs. Mullins (Miranda Otto: I, Frankenstein, War of the Worlds), only to witness their little girl, the clear inspiration for the doll, killed in a terrible accident. A dozen years later, he is now stooped over with sadness, and she is now mysteriously reclusive, never leaving her bedroom. Grief and something, you know, haunted hang over their sprawling, spooky house in the remote deserty hills of southern California. Naturally, this seems like a great environment into which to invite a passel of little-girl orphans and their nun guardian (Stephanie Sigman: Spectre, Miss Bala) to come stay when their orphanage shuts down. Even though there is a locked room into which the girls must never venture, Mr. Mullins orders. (The doll is in there, it is no spoiler to reveal.) Even though there is a haunted dumbwaiter. Even though there is a creepy barn with a creepy scarecrow within. Even though there is the aforementioned creepy well. (“This place is so creepy,” one of the girls notes.) Even though–
Well. Suffice to say that the story requires that the Mullinses — allegedly very nice churchgoing people — knowingly put vulnerable children in danger, and yet this is not meant to sour us on them, but actually to make us feel sorry for them. This is a story in which the Church obviously accepts and takes active steps against demonic presences and yet allows children in its charge to be placed in not just mortal but immortal danger (for their very souls, etc). A subplot about the Church’s recklessness when it comes to vulnerable children could have been, alas, very pointed and pertinent, but the script — by Gary Dauberman, who also wrote Annabelle — doesn’t even seem to realize such potential is there. That could have been authentically chilling, a horror akin to that which actual people have actually perpetrated.
As it is, though, Annabelle: Creation has no resonance, no spiritual or psychological weight, no heft of any kind. As the demonic doll harasses the orphans, director David F. Sandberg gives us a familiar collection of funhouse spooks that are telegraphed a mile out. All the ooky shadows and stuff jumping out are so obvious and rote that you have forgotten the boos even before they strike. The creaking — so much creaking! — becomes an inadvertent regular punchline to an ongoing unfunny joke.
The only remotely disturbing thing about this movie is its twist on the genre-ritual terrorization of female characters. Typically that means nubile young women — that is, adults — whose fear is presented in a sexualized way. But the haunting here focuses on prepubescent best friends Linda (Lulu Wilson: Deliver Us from Evil) and Janice (Talitha Bateman, who looks like a very young Jennifer Lawrence). These young actors are very good at being very scared, which only doubles down on how Sandberg plays their sustained fear as titillating. (That’s sort of the entire point of horror, isn’t it? To be stimulating, right? But this is most definitely a movie meant to thrill adults, not one offering safe scares for kids.) The terrorized girls — pretty little blond girls — here are so young that it feels like a kind of pedophilia. Pedo-fear-lia? Perhaps this wasn’t intentional, but that doesn’t make it any less icky.