By Jack Dignan
No matter how many times Hollywood has tried throughout its endless existence, making a legitimately scary horror movie about a doll is hard. They’ve tried. A lot. But more often than not, they fail. From Child’s Play to Puppet Master to Dead Silence and beyond, countless attempts have been made, yet why is it that so few succeed? Even the good ones, Child’s Play being the most obvious example here, have a tendency to become tiresome after a while. The subgenre of doll-horror became self-parody. It simply was not working, until eventually it started to die off.
But then, in 2013, horror hit a turning point. The Conjuring was released, and it blew audiences out of the water with its inventive retro scares and game changing horror style. It single handedly rejuvenated the haunted house concept, but one of the scares that resonated most with audiences was an opening sequence in which a young group of friends recount their experience with a haunted doll. This doll was named Annabelle, and for the first time since 1989, scary dolls became scary again. Naturally, and unexpectedly, the doll warranted a spin off movie, except it failed to live up to the Conjuring name. The film lacked in all departments, replicating the trends of so many scary doll movies before it.
In that lackluster spin off laid potential. It was potential for a seriously scary movie, and thanks to the financial success of the first film, we finally get that pay off. At long last, for the first time in nearly three decades, scary doll movies are actually scary again. In fact, they’re not just scary anymore. They’re fucking terrifying. Annabelle: Creation is exactly what we needed from the first Annabelle spin off, delivered in a way that stands on its own while serving as an unnerving set up for things to come. The Conjuring is in the midst of creating its own cinematic universe, and it’s about time that the spin offs are just as frightening as their main events.
Take your mind back to the 1950s. It’s a quiet lifestyle for a group of orphans, moving from one orphanage to the other without any permanent residence. They’re bored. They want to be adopted, or settle down at the very least. And that’s when retired couple Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther (Mirando Otto) offers up their empty home for the young orphans to come and stay in. Things are looking up for the girls, especially our two protagonists Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson), but, as is to be expected within the genre of horror, things in this house aren’t what they seem, and when Janice uncovers the mysterious Annabelle doll, she awakens an evil stirring deep within.
It may sound like your basic horror movie premise and that’s because it pretty much is. There’s a new house, a large cast of unsuspecting teens and adolescents, a mysterious owner and doors that open all on their own. It’s the opposite of this year’s It Comes At Night. That film, as much as I loved it, wasn’t really scary. There were tense moments and paranoia swirled throughout every scene, but it wasn’t a horror in the traditional sense. It relied more on the heavy hitting story to carry its audience through, which is the opposite of what Annabelle: Creation does. Here, the plot doesn’t work. It’s generic, predictable, poorly written and one dimensional, which bogs a lot of the pacing down, but it’s the strength of the scares that bring it up a notch.
You’ve seen the premise before and you’ll see it again, but the filmmakers behind it, in particular director David F. Sandberg, have a sturdy understanding on how horror works. Sandberg knows how to evoke scares, especially evident from his chilling short films and feature length debut last year with the unexpectedly impressive Lights Out. He takes this mundane, simple premise and utilizes every trick in the book. Creativity is at a high and the suspense is dreadful. Everyone in the auditorium was locked to the screen in utter freight and unease. Horror aims to provoke, and it got its desired reaction. Nervous giggles and startled gasps were aplenty. We were all in this together, and every one of us wanted out, which is the highest compliment I can give.
Unlike the first Annabelle, somebody actually directed this movie. Effort has been put into the craft. There are genuine camera angles and a fierce, unpredictable visual style able to elevate the tension at any given moment. The set design of the house is twisted and creepy, allowing for a wide range of terrifying displays, even if certain aspects of it felt underutilized. A creepy Harry Potter-styled cupboard under the stairs is wasted, appearing in just one scene, and the twisty house lay out never really plays into anything. It looks cool. It makes you uneasy. But nothing’s ever done with it. The characters predominately just stick to hallways and rooms we’ve already been in, excluding a third act that takes this film to a whole other level.
The first two acts are dark, frightening fun with a wicked sense of humour. You never really know whether to laugh or scream, so the verbal result is a blend of both. Annabelle comes into play fast and she doesn’t hold back. She’s much more lively this time around, all without being a physical presence, which makes her all the more creepier. Just being around her, no matter what she’s doing (it’s mostly just her sitting), arouses goose bumps. Her design remains a heightened interpretation of what she looks like in real life, but it continues to be effective, and when mixed together with the malevolent entity present in the house, there are some absolutely nightmarish sequences to unfold.
So many scares are way too good to spoil. A moment in a bunk bed is particularly unnerving, but it’s the third act where the real dread seeps in. Every moment works. Every scare knocks you right back into your seat. All of the scares are full of creativity, something the first half, while effective, was lacking in a lot of regards. It was still frightening, don’t get me wrong, but they were mostly new takes on familiar scares, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, but the third act just up’s the ante in every regard. There’s a scene in a shed that I’m quite possibly never going to recover from, and it’s executed in a way only David F. Sandberg could’ve pulled off.
Key to a good scare is good character. You need to care for their wellbeing for the tension to rise, yet with Annabelle: Creation, I hardly cared for any of them and the film still managed to knock my socks off. The two leads have stale chemistry, more due to their dialogue than their performance, and none of the supporting cast gets enough screen time for me to really give a shit. Anthony LaPiglia overacts his character, making him an unnecessarily sinister presence that comes across as more of a douche than a caring husband. There’s also a jarring protagonist shift two thirds of the way through that begs the question of why that second character wasn’t always the central point of focus in the first place.
Alas, credits due where credits due, and the fact that I didn’t care about anyone yet I was still absolutely terrified throughout is an immense achievement on behalf of everyone involved. This is easily the scariest movie so far in 2017. With plenty of goodies still to come (watching the IT trailer on the big screen before this was a marvel), 2017 continues to amaze in the department of horror. You’re going to want to throw away all your childhood toys after watching this film, and honestly, I’m happy to help you burn them.
3 1/2 Stars
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