The horror genre is now following the Hollywood trend of building entire franchise universes, and The Conjuring franchise has been leading the charge. The latest installment is technically a prequel of a prequel; however, Annabelle: Creation is superior to its predecessor in every way, and sets a new bar for The Conjuring franchise.
The story jumps back to an era around the 1930-40s, where doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) live happily on their ranch property with their daughter, "Bee" (Samara Lee). That happiness is shattered the day that Bee is killed in a horrible accident; the Mullins stay closed off from the world, mired in their grief, until twelve years pass and they see an opportunity to fill their home again.
That opportunity comes in the form of a wayward band of orphan girls, who take up residence at the Mullins' house. One young girl named Janice (Talitha Bateman), who is crippled from polio, finds herself isolated and lonely - until she starts to get unexplained visits from an supernatural presence in the house. At first Janice is curious - but that curiosity costs her dearly, as the mysterious presence soon leads her to a secret room in the Mullins' house, where Janice finds a creepy, custom-made doll seemingly imprisoned. As soon as the doll is set loose from that room all hell begins to break loose, as the Mullins, the orphans, and even the kindly chaperon nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), all start getting terrorized by the demon that lives inside the Annabelle doll.
Director David F. Sandberg made a splash in the horror genre with last year's Lights Out, and Annabelle: Creation shows that he is definitely a talent worth watching. Sandberg doesn't reinvent the wheel with this prequel-sequel installment of an established franchise; instead, he simply makes a creatively rich and well-executed horror film that does its job effectively and well, creating frightening levels of tension that never let up. There are a lot of moments in Annabelle: Creation that will make viewers cover their eyes or jump out of their seats, with almost zero drag or lulls between scares.
Sandberg's blocking and visual concepts are sharp and on point, while the camerawork by Maxime Alexandre (High Tension, Hills Have Eyes) plays with audience perspective and expectations in some fun ways. Where Annabelle: Creation loses a few points, however, is in the story by Gary Dauberman (IT). On the one hand, Dauberman creates a strong standalone prequel story; however, Annabelle Creation's narrative obligations to the rest of The Conjuring universe require certain connective elements getting shoehorned in. A final ending twist attempts to maintain franchise continuity, but instead comes off as a cheesy and thin contrivance, meant to keep everything in synch.
The cast of young actresses do a good job of selling the scares, and creating characters worth worrying about. The big standout is Lulu Wilsion, who already gave a breakout performance in another horror franchise prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil. Wilson takes over the lead character reigns partway through the film, giving it a shot of dynamic energy that makes the final half even more tense and scarily enjoyable than the first. Veteran character actors like Anthony LaPaglia (Without A Trace) and Miranda Otto (24: Legacy) create pitch-perfect ambiguous adult characters, who keep you guessing about their intentions throughout the story.
In the end, Annabelle: Creation is a pleasant surprise to find, this far into the Conjuring franchise. It's definitely worth a trip to the theater, and even lends credit to the idea that expanding The Conjuring franchise into more spinoff chapters will be as worthwhile for viewers, as it is for the studio.
*Note: Be sure to stay until the very end of the credits, as there are two credits scenes for you to enjoy.
Annabelle: Creation is now in theaters. It is 1 hour and 49 minutes long, and is Rated R for horror violence and terror.