What is it about dolls that is so scary? Just the sight of a loose doll eyeball or a leg, separated from its corporeal context, can send a shiver down the spine. Dolls are so easily, effectively creepy that the tossed off prologue of “The Conjuring” generated a breakout star. Now, the evil porcelain doll Annabelle has a franchise of her own, with “Annabelle,” and the latest, “Annabelle: Creation,” a prequel of a prequel that director David F. Sandberg ably spins into a satisfyingly spooky origin story.
Sandberg made a bit of a sensation last year with his clever horror debut, “Lights Out,” and his command of cinematography, lighting, production design and sound makes “Annabelle: Creation” a fine heir to the legacy of “The Conjuring” and “The Conjuring 2” auteur James Wan. Like Wan, Sandberg uses computer generated ghouls and demons sparingly, relying instead on practical in-camera effects like complex camera movements, sound, lighting and focus to hold, direct and re-direct our attention, building suspense and anticipation.
So where did this creepy doll come from? “Annabelle” writer Gary Dauberman offers up a tale that fits like a jigsaw into the extended “Conjuring” cinematic universe. She was hand-crafted by a dollmaker, Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), in the 1940s. Twelve years later, they open their home to group of young orphan girls and their guardian, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), hoping to bring some life back after mourning the loss of their young daughter, Annabelle, tragically killed in an accident over a decade earlier. The young women are grateful for their generosity, despite the rambling Victorian’s remote location and proliferation of random doll parts.
The thing about forbidden rooms is that they never stay closed and they’re ultimately never worth exploring, and this proves to be true in “Annabelle: Creation.” All it takes is some curious wandering, and soon, the glassy-eyed doll is wreaking violent psychological and physical havoc on sweet Janice (Talitha Bateman), who wears a leg brace after a bout with polio.
All the performances are worthy of note, especially Bateman, who offers up a wonderfully wide-ranging turn; also strong are LaPaglia and Miranda Otto as his bedridden wife, Esther. But the star is easily saucer-eyed 11-year-old Lulu Wilson, who plays the plucky Linda. Wilson is proving to be quite the scream queen, after her memorable turn in last year’s “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” and she’s a fantastically committed actress, who seems in on the joke and wise beyond her years.
It’s simply a treat to watch Sandberg’s style on display in “Annabelle: Creation,” filled with circling dolly shots that reveal and conceal evil in torturously teasing ways, effective narrative use of practical lighting for dramatic effect, and heart-pounding sound effects and a score of screaming strings. The film relies more on spooky bumps and jumps than overwhelmingly horrific violence or gore (though it definitely does have its moments), and Sandberg nails the tone that is equal parts scary and winking at the ridiculousness of it all.
“Annabelle: Creation,” written and directed by men, is a female-centered horror film with a palpable feminist bent. Girls and women aren’t sexualized, or presented as objects on screen. They’re the subjects: capable heroes, grisly villains, and tragic victims as well. In tangling with this group of feisty girls, Annabelle has become a true horror icon.
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