The methodical coils tighten and then pounce and pounce again in "Annabelle: Creation," an undeniably effective if eventually wheel-spinning cinematic jack-in-the-box. This 1940s- and '50s-set prequel to 2014's atmospherically frightful "Annabelle
"itself a prequel-cum-spinoff of 2013's "The Conjuring
"concocts almost too many uncomfortably hairy situations to count, but this repetitiveness becomes its gradual undoing in a third act where characters spend an inordinate amount of time meandering around a dark house when they should be running out the front door. Suffice it to say, Sidney Prescott would not approve. What is
wholly approvable is the devilish skill with which director David F. Sandberg (2016's "Lights Out
") brings to each scare scene. James Wan has a right to be proud.
Twelve years after a tragic accident claimed the life of toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and wife Esther's (Miranda Otto) precocious 7-year-old daughter Bee (Samara Lee), the couple agrees to take in six orphaned girls and their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman). The farmhouse is like a mansion to these young ladies and there is plenty of room outside to roam and play, but the polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman), wearing a leg brace to help her get around, is mostly confined indoors. Samuel makes it known Bee's old bedroom is off-limits, but late one night curiosity gets the best of Janice. It is in here where she discovers the treasured Annabelle doll Bee's dad made for her. This is no ordinary doll, however; Janice senses immediately that dark forces are surrounding it, the smiling plastic nightmare possessed by something other than the Mullins' departed little girl.
" was more confidently plotted and historically sumptuous within its post-Manson period setting, moving forward with each new nerve-shredding scene while never losing sight of the personal arcs of its central players, "Annabelle: Creation" is a notably thinner excuse to unspool a series of super-tense set-pieces. What the screenplay by Gary Dauberman (returning writer of its predecessor) lacks in narrative and thematic weight director Sandberg makes up for with his keen sense in how to arrange hair-raising circumstances and milk them for all the suspense they're worth. Sequences of frightened children terrorized in their darkened bedrooms have become more than a little familiar"The Conjuring
" and 2016's "The Conjuring 2
" both featured variations on the same basic setupbut there is no denying they once again work like gangbusters here. A dumbwaiter, a wind-up pop gun, Punch and Judy puppets operated by invisible forces, a scarecrow out in the barn, and a terrifying ride on a motorized stair lift all get their chilling moment in the spotlight, primed to make viewers clench their armrests and gasp mightily at all the intended spots.
Talitha Bateman (2016's "Nine Lives") and Lulu Wilson (2016's "Ouija: Origin of Evil
") carry much of the film as the handicapped Janice and best friend Linda, and they are excellent, intuitive in how they embody their roles and navigate the complex range of emotions required. Certain developments in the second half are cause for a recalibration in who the main protagonist is, and one disappointment is in the film's failure to capture the gravity of this key loss. Wilson, so unsettling as the possessed Doris in "Ouija: Origin of Evil," is completely sympathetic in this much different part; based on these two features, she has fast become one of the most promising current actors of her age group. Also of note, Stephanie Sigman (2015's "Spectre
") emanates warmth, understanding, and spiritual devotion as Sister Charlotteeven when she is fabricating holy teachings to meet her specific, ultimately out-of-the-ordinary needs.
As the latest entry in what is now being described as "The Conjuring Universe," "Annabelle: Creation" is comparatively lacking in substance and, thus, is perhaps slightly more pedestrian. One could lose count in the number of times characters wander off to forbidden places, putting themselves directly in harm's way only because the script calls for it. Nevertheless, this engaging, solidly freaky prequel is certainly at one with what has come beforeand, more to the point, what chronologically comes after
delivering to fright-famished audiences exactly what they've come for while cleverly setting up the franchise's next installment, 2018's "The Nun." For fans, staying put all the way through the end credits will be well worth the wait.