At the dark heart of Annabelle: Creation, an origin-story prequel to a spin-off of an ongoing horror series, is a doll that doesn’t do much of anything but observe, with a cruelly malignant rictus grin, the terror that befalls the people of the film. Immobile and unspeaking, this conduit for a demonic force is an oddly limited figure around which to build a horror franchise. But where John R. Leonetti’s Annabelle struggled to figure out how to integrate his title figurine into its satanic-horror goings-on, director David F. Sandberg comes up with an elegant solution in Creation: to treat the doll as a blackly funny visual gag, a ghoulish little punchline to the film’s cunningly effective scares.
Creation is potentially saddled with a lot of franchise-servicing baggage. Yes, Gary Dauberman’s screenplay makes sure to tie itself into the broader Conjuring universe, drawing on the same demonic mythology established in The Conjuring and Annabelle, but the film is very much its own entity. Set decades before and miles away from the events of Annabelle, Creation mines an unusual western gothic vein of horror that largely eschews the jump-scare shock tactics of James Wan’s The Conjuring in favor of simmering suspense—as in a scene in which a girl throws a sheet over Annabelle and watches aghast as the doll seems to walk toward her, the sheet slowly falling away with each subsequent step until nothing is revealed underneath.
In an isolated farmhouse with a picture-perfect view of the mountains, artisanal dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) lives happily with his beloved wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), and daughter, Bee (Samara Lee), until the latter is killed in a tragic accident. Years later, the couple opens their house to a group of orphan girls, who delight in the property’s sprawl even as they remain wary of all its oddities. One day, the handicapped Janice (Talitha Bateman) finds out why she and the other girls are forbidden from entering Bee’s old bedroom. After going into the room, Janice discovers the doll that Samuel made for his daughter just before her death and unleashes a mysterious demonic force that begins to terrorize the house.
Often, the film feels less like a successor to the muddled Annabelle than an expansion and refinement of Sandberg’s Lights Out. Like that film, Creation is a haunted-house horror story that plays on our primeval fear of the dark. Employing crisp, low-light compositions, Sandberg suggests a powerful evil lurking in the deep-black pools of negative space that dominate the frame.
The film isn’t above throwing in all manner of tried-and-true horror chestnuts—from a monstrous scarecrow to a grisly crucifixion to Esther’s unsettling Phantom of the Opera mask—but Creation syncretizes these disparate elements with a consistent tone of giddy malevolence that’s bolstered by killer timing and a coherent sense of space. Scenes like one in which Janice desperately tries to descend the stairs in a slow-moving chairlift before being brusquely jolted out of the seat demonstrate Sandberg’s penchant for patiently coiling the tension before a sudden and startling release.
The film isn’t without its flaws: the polished depiction of orphans is unconvincing to the point of laughability; many of the basic plot details don’t make much sense (why do the Mullinses invite a bunch of children into their house when they know there’s an easily releasable demonic spirit living there?); and Sandberg doesn’t quite stick the landing, providing a too-easy resolution and an arbitrary House of Usher riff to close things out. Meanwhile, the characters are largely blank outlines that Sandberg makes little attempt to fill in. If the film could be accused of lacking emotional depth, thematic heft, or even subtext, it scarcely matters. By paring away any extraneous elements, Creation successfully homes in on its singular goal: pure, unrelenting terror.