Posters for Annabelle: Creation tout it as "The Next Film in The Conjuring Universe." That's right: The ghosts and demons whose "true" stories Ed and Lorraine Warren chronicled over decades of paranormal investigation now have their own extended universe, just like superheroes. Anything to distract the audience from the realization that these films are just a thousand variations on the same old bumps in the night.
That said, if bumps in the night entertain you, this prequel to the poorly reviewed Annabelle (2014) has some good ones. Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) milks maximum chills from the material and his actors, though he can't overcome a script in which people repeatedly do stupid things for no reason.
An origin story for the titular demonically possessed doll (who first appeared as a footnote in The Conjuring), the film briefly shows us Annabelle's genesis in the workshop of salt-of-the-earth dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia). We never learn, however, why he chose to endow a doll seemingly inspired by his sweet little daughter (Samara Lee) with the eyes of a malevolent Margaret Keane painting and the carmine grimace of a vampire.
Twelve years after their daughter's accidental demise, in 1957, Mullins and his reclusive wife (Miranda Otto) attempt to heal by taking in a gaggle of female orphans, plus an attendant nun (Stephanie Sigman). Needless to say, this is a bad idea.
Disabled by polio and isolated from her peers, young Janice (Talitha Bateman) begins experiencing strange phenomena in the ramshackle, desolate house. Behind a door that should be locked, she discovers Annabelle in a closet papered with Bible verses, which perhaps should have tipped her off to the whole "evil doll" thing.
Instead, Janice and her friend Linda (Lulu Wilson, also an MVP in Ouija: Origin of Evil) remain oblivious to the supernatural danger far longer than their youth can excuse. The film abounds in "No, don't go in there!" scenes. While the young actors shine, their characters aren't fleshed out enough to justify their lapses in logic, or to make us feel invested in their fates.
Despite these failings, the film works as a collection of creepy set pieces, with careful camera work used to manipulate audience focus and expectation. Sandberg is lauded for his short fright films, and the best scenes in Creation are basically that, easily disconnected from the main narrative.
Not inclined to Chucky-style campiness, Annabelle stalks people with a certain style. In one scene, the viewer is riveted by an ambulatory drapery that slowly peels itself away to reveal not a CG horror, but nothing at all. It's an emblem of the sleight of hand these movies practice, always making us anticipate something scarier than they produce.
Great production design helps. The house where most of the action takes place has more character than anyone in it, from a creaky dumbwaiter to a record that plays by itself to a faceless scarecrow lurking in the barn.
In mid-century horror cinema, nothing said "scary" quite like Victorian bric-a-brac; today, it's the Eisenhower-to-Ford era that appears to have become the locus of terror. Perhaps the past of 50 or 60 years ago always appears to us as a haunted attic packed with cultural skeletons — such as the warehousing of kids in orphanages, or the shame that poor Janice experiences over her leg braces. We can tell ourselves we've put such ugliness behind us, but the logic of these films says the hideous effigy you lock in a closet will always sneak back out.