A group of orphans, and a nun, go to live in the large house of Samuel and Esther Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto), a toymaker and his wife who lost their only daughter in a car accident. Once there, one girl in particular (Lulu Wilson) finds herself drawn to a creepy porcelain doll that may have evil intentions…
So here it is, the latest addition to what we’re told we should call The Conjuring Universe (you’re nothing these days if you can’t put the word ‘universe’ at the end of your name). If you haven’t been keeping track, Annabelle Creation is the prequel to the prequel to the prequel to The Conjuring 2, with a third Conjuring and two more spin-offs, including Corin Hardy’s The Nun, to come. At least.
The last movie, Annabelle, explained how the eponymous evil doll came to be in the possession of paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren in The Conjuring. No prizes for guessing that this one sets out to show how a seemingly innocent child’s toy (albeit one with the cold dead eyes of a Love Island contestant) became Satan’s plaything.
By this point, the series should be deep into diminishing returns, with each instalment proving less significant, and substantially less scary, than the last, like a series of possessed Russian dolls. Curiously, though, that’s not happening; horror is not eating itself. While David F. Sandberg’s movie can’t hold a flickering candle to the James Wan-directed entries in the series — sorry, universe — it’s got plenty of decent shocks, and the odd genuine surprise, up its sleeve.
It’s about twenty minutes before there’s anything remotely resembling a bump in the night.
Sandberg’s last movie, Lights Out, was deeply unimpressive, hampered by a litany of poorly-staged jump scares and a running time so slight it was almost its own trailer. The Swedish director, perhaps bolstered by a bigger budget and more confidence from those around him, has stepped things up for Annabelle Creation, mainly by slowing things down at first. Sandberg goes to some pains to set up the geography of the house and grounds in which Linda (Wilson), our young crippled orphan heroine, will find herself fighting for her life from the unwanted attentions of the demonic doll. There’s a certain knowing joy to be derived from his tour of the grounds — if you think that rickety stairlift, that unusually large dollhouse, or that sinister well might play a part later, you might be right about that.
It’s about twenty minutes before there’s anything remotely resembling a bump in the night, but once there is, the pace rarely lets up, partially to ride roughshod over plot holes you could drive a monster truck through. And with so many characters to menace, the last thirty minutes become more frenetic than terrifying, more hackneyed than horrifying. Sandberg and screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who also wrote Annabelle and The Nun, could easily have lost a couple of the fairly large group of orphans, perhaps in favour of focusing on the ever-compelling LaPaglia and Otto as the bereaved parents who seem to be turning a blind eye to the evil goings on under their roof. But there’s a nicely-sustained sense of menace throughout, some of the jump scares are effective as hell, and it all ties into the rest of the franchise — sorry, universe — rather neatly. You might even say it’s child’s play.
Toy Story with a twist, this is better than it had any right to be. Hardcore horror buffs may laugh and scoff at the mechanics of some of the scares; the rest may never be able to walk past the window of a toy shop without crossing themselves.