“The Conjuring” — and its direct sequel, to a slightly lesser extent — are destined to be modern horror classics. Both are shining examples of how to structure and streamline a horror tale in the present age. But you know Hollywood’s motto: “all good things must become an expanded universe.” Thus we have “Annabelle: Creation,” the prequel to the prequel to the first ten minutes of “The Conjuring.”
The beginning and ending of “Annabelle: Creation” are as unnecessary as you’d expect. One is the prologue to a prequel’s prequel, the other a prequel’s epilogue setting up its prequel predecessor. But when the film isn’t bending over backwards Exorcist-style to connect to the universe of “The Conjuring”, it’s a surprisingly taut experience. Director David F. Sandberg has conjured up a lean, mean, horror machine.
The film explores the origin of Annabelle, the fiendish doll that made brief but memorable appearances in “The Conjuring” and got its own lackluster movie in 2014. Not that there were any lingering questions about Annabelle: the only real narrative revelation is that the craftsman who made the doll apparently has no eye for how creepy his creations look. Twelve years after the craftsman and his wife lose their young daughter to a car accident, they open their home to a group of orphan girls and their Catholic nun caretaker. Problems arise because they previously opened their home to something more sinister.
The child actresses that portray the orphans are a mixed bag. Some of them struggle through the flat lines written by Gary Dauberman (who wrote the other “Annabelle” prequel and pales in comparison to the twin brothers who wrote “The Conjuring”), but the central two girls are strong. Janice is immediately sympathetic due to a polio infection that’s left her crippled; the casting of Lulu Wilson is effective because her appearance in “Ouija: Origin of Evil” still causes me to wake up screaming every other night.
David F. Sandberg jumpstarted his directorial career with the horror movie “Lights Out”, in which he played with one, simple gimmick: the contrast between light and dark. The results of this gimmick were frightening but wore out as “Lights Out” went on. His work in “Annabelle: Creation” is the development of this gimmick into a legitimate style. He’s still a one trick pony, but he’s performing that trick remarkably well. The film’s set design, cinematography, and (of course) lighting all contribute to Sandberg’s flirtation with demons in the darkness. He’s learned how to sustain his style and bend technique to draw out fear — the signs of a master in the making.
Sound design and vile images bump “Annabelle: Creation” another notch up the quality scale. The sound design is best described as ‘loud’, but it befits the simplicity of his visual subversion. The movie shoves your face into repulsive, hellish imagery to a degree that’s rarely seen in mainstream horror since “Silence of the Lambs” — specific shots will stick with you whether you like it or not.
‘Well-made, but not scary’ is too common a complaint in the horror genre. Not with “Annabelle: Creation”: it’s almost too scary. It rejects the notion that audiences need a break between heart attacks and bombards the viewer with admirably crafted jump scares. There’s no reprieve, little room to breathe. It’s relentlessly terrifying: the kind of great horror that you only enjoy once it’s over.
The movie’s narrative is getting tired, especially in a franchise that’s essentially recycling the same story. But even if it’s another retread, “Annabelle: Creation” is a hell of a ride, like a familiar roller coaster that’s extended its drops by a hundred feet or so.