As one of the few Annabelle defenders in my circle, and also a (less rare) champion of Lights Out, I had immensely high hopes for Annabelle: Creation, as it was directed by Lights Out's David F. Sandberg but retained the writing talents of Gary Dauberman, seemingly guaranteeing that this would be a shoe-in for my stamp of approval. Alas, while the film was enjoyable and largely avoided the usual pitfalls of prequels, it didn't quite come together for me as much as I hoped when I practically jumped at the chance to see the film nearly two months before its standard release, courtesy of the LA Film Festival. However, before I get into it, I'd like to stress I was in the minority, and nearly everyone I spoke to thought it was a giant improvement over its predecessor, and (of course) reminded me that I like Cathy's Curse or whatever, ignoring that I also like The Exorcist and maybe everyone will see a movie a bit differently.
With not a lot of wiggle room for a traditional sequel, since the first Annabelle more or less led right into The Conjuring, WB and producer Wan had no choice but to go the prequel route again. The film begins in 1945, with Anthony LaPaglia playing Samuel Mullins, the creator of the doll who lives in an isolated home with his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and their daughter "Bee" (Samara Lee), and if you think you know what Bee might be a nickname for, give yourself a no-prize. Anyway, Bee is tragically killed not long after her introduction, and we flash forward 12 years later, when the Mullins are despondent and Esther is also suffering from some mystery injury that left her bed-ridden and wearing a facial mask. For reasons that are given explanations you might not even catch, the Mullins have agreed to let their home act as a makeshift orphanage for six girls and their guardian, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), whose orphanage had recently closed. You don't need to see the first film, or The Conjuring, or really any other horror movie ever made to know that spooky things start happening and the girls are menaced by an unseen evil - one that always happens to strike when one of Bee's dolls is near.
Again, it's an enjoyable enough film, but there were two things kind of keeping me slightly at bay. One was the length, which was 109 minutes - ten more than the original, and even that could have been pared down. The plot is not complicated and despite an initial attempt at balancing out the six girls, they quickly narrow the focus down to just two of them, so it's not like "character stuff" is to blame - there isn't all that much. And until the halfway point the movie is little more than a repetitive cycle of scenes where one of those girls gets scared, then things calm down, then the other one gets scared, then things calm down... you get the point. Two of the other girls are highlighted in a throwaway scare scene somewhere in there, but the final two are backgrounded almost to the point where I wondered why they were written into the script and cast with actors at all. We also get some time with Sister Charlotte, to be fair, but given the R rating and the fact that the movie kicks off with a young girl's death, they seemed to be setting up a borderline body count scenario with the six orphans (two of whom are old enough to be slasher movie victims), but without spoiling much, the most violent the movie gets is when they repeat a scene from the first film.
Now, I'm not saying I'm disappointed that the movie didn't show me the deaths of several children, but merely that the film as a whole was less grim than the original, somewhat betraying the "Killer doll movie for adults" approach that was one of my favorite things about it. I can't imagine it'd take much revising for them to get a PG-13 here (hell, they might even be able to simply argue for one without cutting a frame), especially since 90% of the film revolves around the same sort of "little kid sees something scary" material that has served countless other teen-friendly horror films. The adults, particularly LaPaglia and Otto, have little to do beyond deliver exposition and, in LaPaglia's case, show up in time to cut the tension of a creepy doll scene with some sort of "I told you not to go in here" kind of muttering before disappearing again. There's a bit of a disconnect, in fact, as it seems that the other characters vanish into a void when they're not directly involved with a scene, or they're all severely hearing impaired. Maybe because I'm a parent, but I'd much rather have spent more time with them and how having children in the home again affects their state of mind, but there's almost none of that - they're both basically extended cameo roles.
My other issue is that Sandberg's scares mostly follow the same pattern, which gets old quick in a movie that, again, is also too long. The original's apartment complex and metropolis setting gave it a bit of its own identity and new possibilities for scares, but this giant old house in the middle of nowhere will have you thinking about The Conjuring more than you should, which doesn't help when many of the scares feel like reprises of that film's. They're basically all the same: one of the little girls does something innocuous, and nothing happens, but then she does it again, and something DOES happen, and then there's a brief struggle of minor consequence. The exceptions are largely successful - there is a classic bit on one of those stair-climber automated chairs that rivals the one in Gremlins - but there are too many generic ones in between them, and too much buildup as well. Sandberg almost always telegraphs what we have to keep an eye on, something he could have used to his advantage by tricking us more often than he did.
Now, for those who aren't overly familiar with my writing history, I should stress that these kind of traditional haunted house scares almost never really work on me (even in the Conjuring films themselves) so your mileage may vary. The audience certainly ate them up, but after a dozen or so times where I could see the scare coming a mile away, there was only so much amusement I could continue to have by watching the reactions of my friend and the strangers around me. After 45 minutes or so, I was ready for the movie to move on from these low-stakes "intro" scares and move on to a meatier narrative - it's rare that I would welcome an exposition dump, but when one came I got excited because I knew there wouldn't be another BOO! moment that left me indifferent. Paired with the film's seeming intent to appeal to the teens who might have been bored with the adult-centric original, I couldn't help but wonder if, like the film's setting, I would have enjoyed it more if I was 12 years younger.
But once it gets going again and Otto's character gets down to explaining things, it picks up considerably, and since Annabelle as a rule doesn't move, Sandberg gets around it with a fantastic haunted scarecrow that makes a few memorable appearances. There are also a couple of "Did you see that?" kind of scares that I always appreciate (keep a real close eye above Annabelle during a particular shot where it seems all you can see is the doll), and a wonderful sight gag that people who know their history about the real doll will likely applaud. I truly believe if the movie was pared down to 90 minutes, I'd be just as surprised by it as I was the original (albeit without the low expectations that greeted me on that one, since I didn't see it until Blu-ray), as there's enough there to qualify it as worth seeing. I just wish I was fully engaged throughout instead of wanting things to move along.