Who would have known a prequel series to a reboot of a movie based on a book based on a hoax would boast some of the most delightful big-budget horror filmmaking in recent memory?
The Annabelle series is one that should not work; kids, spooky dolls and overexplained mythologies are typically the undoing of any horror story, a genre that works best when shrouded in mystery so as to increase suspense. And yet here we are, two entries into a spin-off of James Wan’s The Conjuring films that have a life all their own, blazing a narrative and stylistic path wholly different from the fact-based life of Catholic paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. There is only one “historical” detail about this doll—that it supposedly terrorized its owner before Lorraine determined it was possessed by a spirit named Annabelle Higgins. Everything else in these films falls short of even that level of truth.
R, 109 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield Stadium 14 & IMAX and Violet Crown Cinema
Perhaps that is precisely why Annabelle: Creation is the most fun that fans of classic horror can have at the cinema this summer. Because everything is a completely new invention on the part of the filmmakers, this series has become home for set designers, creature creators and more to let their imaginations run wild. There’s only so much you can do with a doll, but if there’s an enormous demon inhabiting that doll with the ability to manifest itself, now we’re talking. Then, the dumb-looking toy becomes a foreshadowing tool rather than the thing that is supposed to be scary in itself, giving director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) more creative license than one might typically expect in a big-studio horror sequel.
The story finds the tiniest sliver left unexplained by the previous Annabelle—we learned how the doll was let loose on the world, but not how it was first crafted, then possessed. We meet small-town toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto). Samuel creates the prototype of the Annabelle doll, and advance orders are through the roof. He had only made one, though, when the couple’s daughter is killed in a tragic accident.
Twelve years later, Samuel and Esther allow their home to be used by the church to house orphaned girls, including best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson). In the years between, Esther has suffered an accident that leaves her bedridden, while Samuel is extremely protective of his wife and his daughter’s memory—the latter’s room is locked and entry is forbidden. Soon, a voice from the room beckons to Janice, and terror ensues.
Though it runs a touch on the long side, there’s quite a bit to enjoy about Annabelle: Creation. The mood is suitably spooky, the visuals are slyly complex, and the cast of all ages is thoroughly charming with excellent chemistry. There are no huge scares as in The Conjuring (the less said about The Conjuring 2, the better), and in Annabelle, Sandberg masterfully plays with the audience’s instinct for anticipation. Even when the payoff isn’t terribly frightening, arriving there is always a ride.
Without giving anything away, at one point a character exclaims after witnessing something odd, “What was that?” The amazing reply: “Who cares. Run!” That is exactly the type of movie this is—self-aware but never self-parodying—and it’s well worth your time.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Atomic Blonde, The Dark Tower, Detroit, Dunkirk, Jumanji, Moonrise Kingdom, The Nut Job: Nutty by Nature
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Atomic Blonde, The Dark Tower, Despicable Me 3, Detroit, Dunkirk, The Emoji Movie, Girls Trip, The Glass Castle, Kidnap, The Nut Job: Nutty by Nature, Spider-man: Homecoming, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, War for the Planet of the Apes
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Atomic Blonde, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, The Dark Tower, Dunkirk, Detroit, Girls Trip, The Glass Castle, Maudie, The Nut Job: Nutty by Nature, Shrek, Spider-man: Homecoming