It’s a fairly tired observation at this point to say that horror and comedy are a hair’s width apart in cinematic presentation, but sometimes the truism holds true. Both frights and laughs often rely on the element of surprise to instigate a response from an audience, and often the reaction that surprise will invoke is based on what it does or doesn’t reveal. Annabelle: Creation is ostensibly a horror movie, and while the techniques director David F. Sandberg are textbook effective for what should be a scary film, the subjects of his haunted house flick are comically ill-suited to the types of frights he’s trying to deliver.
In a rural 1950s home, a nun (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of orphaned girls move in with the Mullins family. Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is a dollmaker who has seemingly ceased at his craft, and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) keeps hidden in her room, seeming to suffer from a mysterious illness. One of the girls, Janice (Talitha Bateman), discovers a locked bedroom in the house, which belonged to the Mullinses’ young daughter prior to her death twelve years earlier. In the room, Janice comes across a mysterious doll that fans of The Conjuring will recognize as Annabelle, and a haunting begins, placing the girls and their wards in supernatural danger.
Sandberg is actually a remarkably effective horror director when it comes down to the basic techniques necessary to tease out scares and build suspense. He often places characters in focus on one side of the frame while something moves in the fuzzy background behind them, creating tension and discrepancy between what a character is and what we as the audience are aware of. Jump scares rarely feel unearned, and there is a very occasionally legitimately creepy image that strikes a chord, such as a scene wherein a ghostly apparition in a nun’s habit pushes a wheelchair-bound character to their doom. Granted, these moments often don’t seem to adhere to any consistent logic, even by ghost story standards, but that would be forgivable if the film actually managed to stay consistently scary.
Alas, there’s only so far one can take the premise of a creepy smiling doll before it ceases to be able to carry a film, and more often than not the shocks come across as silly rather than scary. Annabelle’s face will turn while the camera isn’t looking, but the moments when it does turn evoke a stupefied shock in her victims that’s akin to a Jimmy Stewart double-take. There’s just something about that painted smirk that doesn’t evoke terror. Sandberg and screenwriter Gary Dauberman seem to realize the limits of the premise they’ve been handed, so the demon inhabiting Annabelle eventually becomes much more literalized, and with all apologies to the hard-working people of the make-up department, this thing is one of the goofiest-looking movie monsters of recent memory. It looks as if Lord of the Rings‘s Gollum were cosplaying as a Christian devil and fell in a bucket of tar, and it never looks threatening, especially when it morphs from the body of a little girl. It’s laughable to think that showing this thing off in its full prosthetic glory is meant to evoke chills.
This might all be worth it if the story felt like it had any sort of substance, but in that department Dauberman’s script is sorely lacking. The goal here seems to have been to create another origin story on top of the limp one already given in 2014’s Annabelle, but in the process very little attention has been given to giving any of the narrative’s characters much of anything resembling an arc other than a pure drive to survive. By the time it gets to the third act, Annabelle: Creation is jumping between characters as if any of them is developed enough to be the protagonist, but they really are little more than vessels for the goofy spooks. Sandberg has effectively built a thrill ride, but he didn’t build the right kind, as its thrills amount to little more than flaccid giggle-inducers. Maybe an immobile doll isn’t the right vehicle for frights.