"Annabelle: Creation" comes so close to getting it right. This supernatural prequel justifies a whole movie on the origins of the titular creepy doll with good, old school horror -- for most of its running time.
With the seal of approval from great Australian actors Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia, "Annabelle: Creation" almost breaks free from the chains of the original movie, a B-grade 2014 flick you don't need to watch before taking on the prequel.
Orphanage, check. Isolated setting, check. Past tragedy -- you get the idea. These classic genre elements are the bare filling of director David F. Sandberg's horror movie package, and that's the point. He embraces that well-trodden ground. Sandberg last year landed on the horror scene with the more-than-decent "Lights Out". As in that unsettling debut he centres his latest film on a heroine. Janice, played by Talitha Bateman, is not only an orphan, her adversity extends to polio in one leg. The impairment of her crutch and subtle creaks of her leg brace add another tense layer to the fear she'll make it out OK.
And that's one of the film's greatest strengths. You care about Janice and the small group of orphan girls who travel to an isolated house in the mid-'50s to stay with the Mullins, played by Otto and LaPaglia. In a pre-opening title sequence, we see that the couple were left devastated by the death of their daughter 12 years ago. In an effort to move on, they open their house to the orphans, supervised by nun Sister Charlotte.
In her light blue dress, Janice evokes heroines from other movies. She's Alice in Wonderland as she remains brave and curious despite her circumstances, then Ophelia from "Pan's Labyrinth" as she explores the house filled with locked rooms, keys and a doll's house. Meanwhile her cohorts explore outside. They have fun running around -- something she's incapable of -- and it's noted that she's the weakest of the group.
Footsteps, doors creaking open and dark corridors ramp up the tension that makes Annabelle (the doll and the movie) scary. This prequel thoroughly establishes that sitting in a rocking chair defines her particular creepiness. Sandberg holds on moments when the girls discover a dumbwaiter, a giant well, a scarecrow, a record player and a chair lift on the stairs. They're knowing nods to horror movie tropes that tout what to expect from the inevitable demon chase to come.
And it's funny. Surprisingly so, to the point where you sometimes suspect it might not be entirely on purpose. These moments find the levity just on the other side of fear, a technique exhibited so well in the recent acclaimed horror, "Get Out".
Characters are more subtle than they seem. Mr. Mullins smiles sadly when he thinks Janice has been awake at night because she's frightened and dispirited in her new home... a more human concern than demon-infested dolls.
Unfortunately, the movie takes a sudden turn into tackiness through illogical events that connect it back to "Annabelle". The carefully crafted tension and suspense fizzle out at the preordained end. It leaves Janice's story feeling unfair and her character wasted, especially after she's consoled by Sister Charlotte that she's not weak at all.
Despite being a prequel (and part of the "Conjuring" series to boot), "Annabelle: Creation" has a standalone feel -- at least to start with. If its agenda hadn't been set in the title, it might have had the freedom to find a more coherent conclusion. It's able to build Annabelle's myth with suspenseful horror and sympathetic characters. But like any horror movie's characters, it doesn't escape unscathed.
"Annabelle: Creation" is in theatres in the UK, US and Australia this Friday, 11 August.
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