When the haunted-house horror smash The Conjuring was met with great success in 2013, it may still have seemed a little far-fetched to imagine a prequel detailing the misdeeds of an inanimate object of indirect involvement within the narrative – not only this, but a prequel to succeed this prequel, besides a sequel. It has only been four years since the original was released. No need to worry though, the franchise is not as tired as it sounds.
A young girl’s life is tragically cut short in the wake of a horrific accident. The parents are stricken with irrevocable grief, never to be the same again. Several years later, the couple welcome a nun and a group of girls from a diminished orphanage to stay with them. The goodness of this deed soon turns sour when the inhabitants of the eerie house are intimidated by a dark presence. It seems that the grieving duo may be harbouring a sinister secret, a secret that has been rudely awoken by a company of souls to steal.
The plot is certainly very familiar, and will fail to spark excitement even in the most devoted genre fans. But, in capable hands, even the formulaic and predictable can be made into something entertaining. This is exactly what director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) has done. It has been done before, but in this instance it is being made by someone with a control over the content and a guided knowledge of how it should be presented to ensure a desired response, whether this be to scare or simply entertain.
The characters are unlikely to leave a profound imprint on audiences, but are actually more impressively realised than one would expect from a sequel to a film that is downright terrible. The character most dwelled on is Janice (Talitha Bateman), who is confined to wheelchair and crutch; she is much more mature than the other orphans as a consequence of her disability, and the alienation she suffers as a result of this helps contribute to a more well-rounded and sympathetic character to help raise the stakes. Some of her dialogue may seem obvious and clumsily demonstrative, but it must be remembered that children’s speech is not always subtle. The surrounding cast are forgettable in comparison, but characterisation is not the director’s priority, which is surely to scare. The creaks and groans that occupy the spacious unknown of the corridors are blood-curdling, and the unveiling of the household’s obscure agitator is frankly formidable.
Annabelle: Creation offers a satisfying amount of genuinely creepy and engrossing moments. There are jump scares amongst these examples, however the director knows how to incorporate them into situations that would remain impactful without them – they are supplementary. A range of objects and iconography are at Sandberg’s disposal, and he clearly has fun employing them in order to help breathe life into otherwise generic territory, and as this becomes habitual the thrills begin to feel more organic. Granted, there are some cases in which a sense of dread could have been further maintained, but for the most part the free-roaming camera work in particular helps to make an impending demonic presence more threatening. The Annabelle doll itself is not scary, and when the orphans are presented as foreboding the tension begins to erode. The prioritisation of a fiendish omnipresence will help viewers to realise just how influential James Wan’s Insidious has been in shaping the look and feel of modern Horror cinema; the genre, on a mainstream spectrum, arguably has not been the same since.
This latest chapter in The Conjuring universe breaks no new ground, but it is way better than a prequel to an abysmal spin-off should be. There are innovative and intriguing horror films being made, but what Sandberg proves here is that going back to basics can still please audiences if carried out correctly.