Annabelle: Creation makes for a solid Conjuring prequel, with scares and thrills that make up for any noticeable shortcomings in the script.
Loving parents Samuel (Anthony LaPagila) and Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto) suffer an unbearable tragedy when their young daughter Bee (Samara Lee) is killed in an accident. Twelve years later, the two make an arrangement with Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) to allow girls from a shuttered orphanage to stay at their house as they wait to be adopted. Upon arriving at the Mullins' home, the girls - including best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson) - become infatuated with the place, eager to take advantage of its many luxuries.
On the same floor as the girls' bedrooms is a locked off room that everyone is forbidden to enter. However, one night, Janice receives a mysterious note and is able to walk into the room, encountering a child's doll in a white dress that behaves rather mysteriously. Janice has unknowingly let loose a terrible evil through the house, transforming what should have been a safe sanctuary for her and her friends into a terrible nightmare with no end in sight.
The fourth film in the Conjuring franchise, Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to 2014's Annabelle and explores the origins of the possessed doll that has been featured in previous installments. Whereas earlier entries in the series drew inspiration from Ed and Lorraine Warren's real-life case files (which include the actual Annabelle Raggedy-Ann doll), this film is an entirely fictional work that gives the filmmakers an opportunity to add to the Conjuring mythos the way they see fit. Producer James Wan brought his Lights Out director David F. Sandberg to call the shots, and it's safe to say this is a pairing that really works. Annabelle: Creation makes for a solid Conjuring prequel, with scares and thrills that make up for any noticeable shortcomings in the script.
Sandberg is arguably the true star of Creation, once again demonstrating his eye for crafting engrossing horror sequences that leave the audience on the edge of their seats. When the plot kicks into motion after a standard first act, the Mullins' home becomes something of a terrifying haunted house ride for viewers, where anything can strike at a moment's notice. Sandberg makes excellent use of the Annabelle doll prop, which continues to be one of the most unsettling in the genre. Much like the original Conjuring, Creation doesn't overly rely on jump scares, instead spooking moviegoers mainly with haunting imagery and creepy atmosphere that will linger after the credits have rolled, thanks to the contributions of director of photography Maxime Alexandre. The technical merits of Creation are quite strong.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the script written by Gary Dauberman. Creation contains more than its fair share of well-known horror movie clichés that will stand out to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the genre. Classic tropes like questionable character motivations and other plot contrivances will be frustrating for some viewers, especially since they ultimately make the film come across as a standard supernatural thriller, as opposed to being something greater. That said, Dauberman does deserve credit for crafting Creation as a mostly standalone story, balancing it nicely with larger connections to the rest of the Conjuring universe. The film is accessible for newcomers to the property, and thanks to its brisk runtime, it never overstays its welcome.
Annabelle is an ensemble piece, making it difficult for any performer to truly take charge and carry the film on their shoulders. Bateman and Wilson are the leads among the group of girls, getting a sweet and emotional arc buoyed by their sister-like bond. Neither character is all that fleshed out or memorable in the long run, but they serve the purposes of Creation nicely with convincing turns that sell audiences on the terrors of the situation. LaPagila is also good as Samuel, a tortured and grieving man just trying to get by in life. The script doesn't give the actor a whole lot of material to work with, but he makes the most of it and does what he can. At times, he's a very sympathetic figure, as anyone can relate to his pain.
The supporting cast members are all fine in their parts, there just likewise isn't much to many of the roles. While the character of Sister Charlotte is periodically undercut by the conveniences of the script, Sigman injects the girls' caretaker with motherly sensibilities and has some touching scenes with the child actors. She definitely has the meatiest secondary part, as several of the orphaned girls are there just to flesh the group out and take part in scary set pieces during the third act, leaving no meaningful impression. Otto is arguably wasted as Esther, being reduced to primarily reciting exposition that adds to the mysteries of the Mullins' house. As is the case with the rest of the actors, Otto doesn't give a bad performance, but she doesn't stand out, either.
In the end, Annabelle: Creation makes for a fun ride for horror enthusiasts - especially those who have been following the Conjuring franchise from the beginning. Sandberg is clearly in his element, and though the film does follow much of the genre's typical playbook, he throws enough change-ups at the audience to make Creation enjoyable. It doesn't exactly break new ground, but the prequel is a fine addition to the property, indicating there's plenty of life left in the series for future spinoffs and sequels. As we hit the end of the summer movie season, Annabelle is easy to recommend for casual audiences intrigued by marketing and Conjuring die-hards alike.