On a recent library whim, I picked up an anthology of contemporary horror stories—nominees for the annual Bram Stoker Award for short fiction, I think it was. It was a very nice surprise, actually. Fans of the genre will be happy to hear that innovative and sophisticated horror is alive and well in that old-fashioned analog medium we call books.
Annabelle: Creation, the latest installment in The Conjuring horror series, plays like a pleasant little short story, and by pleasant I mean eerie, disturbing, and occasionally gory. Technically a prequel to a spinoff, the movie tells the origin story of Annabelle, the demonically haunted doll that’s been causing bloody mischief for several decades around America.
The Annabelle saga is all “based on a true story” so far as that goes, with everything drawn from the real-life X-files of paranormal investors Ed and Lorraine Warren, subjects of the original 2013 film, The Conjuring. This element of truthiness always seems to enhance these kinds of scary stories, so while you can certainly find plenty of evidence online debunking the whole thing, I don’t recommend it. It’s against the spirit of the thing, as it were.
On with the wickedness: Annabelle, we learn, was made by Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), a California craftsman who lost his little girl in a car accident. In their grief, Sam and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), open their household to demonic forces by praying for the return of their daughter—by any means necessary.
Fast-forward twelve years. Sam and Esther take in a group of six orphaned girls from the local Catholic church, shepherded by Christendom’s most beautiful nun, Sister Charlotte (Mexican-American actress Stephanie Sigman). Among the sweet little moppets in the giant farmhouse is young Janice (Talitha Bateman), hobbled by polio and cursed with an unfortunate predilection for exploring forbidden rooms.
It’s a cool little setup for a scary story, and director David Sandberg (Lights Out) adheres to old-fashioned horror film strategies for heightening the tension and drama. Word is that Sandberg modeled the film after two horror classics: Stanley Kubrick’s ultimate haunted house story, The Shining, and the 1963 psychological horror film The Haunting.
For the most part, Sandberg eschews the cheap jump scares that plague this genre, and instead opts for clever camera work and strategic image compositions. The spooky stuff is often in the corner of the frame, and Sandberg never lingers too long on the gore or demonic apparitions. Less is always more with this style of horror.
The polio thing is an inspired touch. When the demonic forces start to menace poor little Janice (“They always prey on the weak,” Sister Charlotte says), she can’t run the other way. She has to limp away, slowly. You know that nightmare when the monster is chasing you, but you’re stuck in slow motion? Yeah, welcome to Janice’s world.
The movie unravels a bit at the end, as the demands of the script start jerking the characters around—quite literally, in some instances. The slow burn of the first half gives way to frantic exposition and action as the filmmakers try desperately to distract the audience from the rapidly proliferating plot holes. Is the demon haunting the doll? Is the doll the little dead girl? Is the little dead girl the demon? I was also mightily confused by the references to an ancient cabal of severe Romanian nuns, until I read that the next film in the series is called—yes, that’s right—The Nun.
Annabelle: Creation is a perfectly adequate scary movie, the kind that’s fun to see in a theater packed with helpful audiences yelling advice at the screen. But dedicated connoisseurs of the horror genre may find themselves bored. Frankly, scary nuns and creepy dolls are pretty vanilla. If you’re in the market for some really twisted horror, go find one of those contemporary short stories anthologies at your neighborhood bookstore or library.