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Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Gary Dauberman

Starring: Stephanie SigmanMiranda OttoLulu Wilson

Review: David Stephens

Dozens of Marvel and DC superheroes protect the Earth across multiple films. King Kong is cracking his knuckles and getting ready to rumble with Godzilla. Tom Cruise has brought about a new age of Gods and Monsters (or maybe not judging by the critical reaction and box-office for “The Mummy”). But behind all that, another little movie universe has been quietly building itself up in the horror genre. When “The Conjuring” became such a critical and commercial success it led to the spin-off “Annabelle”, originating from the two minute opening sequence. Then there was the London-set sequel to the original, with two further spin-offs shooting out of that film (“The Nun” & “The Crooked Man”) which are currently being made. It’s a movie franchise that has surprised many, but probably plays on the fact that these are very loosely based on true-life incidents and the cinematic equivalent of Creepypastas. So for the next film in the Conjure-Verse (as we’re calling it), we have “Annabelle: Creation” a prequel/sequel to the aforementioned “Annabelle”, which gives more background to the story of the supposedly possessed doll. The first film detailed the origin of the “demonic force” that invaded the mannequin, as she/it terrorised an urban couple in the 60’s. This follow-up goes further back in the toy’s history and is directed by David F. Sandberg, who made “Lights Out” (the long and short version) and is now tapped to direct the DCEU film “Shazam!” With a global release just occurring, YGROY locks the toy box, maims the Barbies and watches a preview of the movie…

You’d think after seeing the incident that caused Annabelle to become possessed in the first film, it would mean that there’s not much more to say about the early days of the rictus-faced hag-toy. But you’d be surprisingly wrong. The film opens with a toymaker for “Mullins Toy Company” handcrafting the titular doll herself, and apparently she’s #1 in a limited edition series. It turns out that the “company” is merely Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) toiling away in the barn located on his dusty farm, out in the middle of scrubland Nowheresville. Sam is distracted from his work by his playful daughter “Bee” (Samara Lee) and he soon joins her and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) for some picture perfect family time. But their happiness is ultimately destroyed by a tragic accident, and the timeline jumps 12 years (to the 1950’s). The Mullins home now looks like the Norman Bates house on a bad day, but the church sees fit to use it as an orphanage for 6 girls with the support of Sam and his now crippled wife. The group includes would-be sisters Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson), with the first girl suffering from polio and confidence issues. But as they settle in, it becomes apparent that a strange presence is in the house, and it’s taken a special interest in Janice. It only gets worse when they find a certain grimacing doll locked away in a room…

By all rights “AC” should be a bust, as it’s a prequel to a critically unloved spin-off, is often predictable, and has sometimes perfunctory dialogue. But it isn’t. Like “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (another superior franchise prequel), the film actually defies expectations and develops into a fun mainstream horror with some fine moments of suspense and chills. In fact the film has such good advance word that it’s bound to be a victim of backlash and its own hype. It’s not ground-breaking, but it is very, very good.

There are quite a few reasons why this is. First off, Sandberg is a cool choice as director and he brings some really good visuals and cinematic treats to the film. The use of light in certain scenes is wonderfully used (causing comparisons to his previous movies no doubt) along with the sound. There’s a great moment where a character is menaced by something charging at her from a pitch-black corridor, and you only ever hear it. Figures move subtly in the background, camera angles swoop from a church tower to the underside of a truck, and practically every shot has a crucifix (“classic” and inverted styles) subliminally inserted somewhere. Some of the stained-glass lighting in the atmospheric house calls “Suspiria” to mind as well, and that’s not an unwelcome influence.

The plot is also at pains to acknowledge the previous influences in the Conjure-verse. The lore around “Annabelle” that was established in the very first scene of “The Conjuring” is embellished here (NB: Think of the word “invite”). And knock us down with a demonic feather if we don’t believe that we saw the briefest of glimpses of a certain entity, which would lay the groundwork for the next spin-off. Yes, we know that movie shared universes are reaching eye-rolling proportions right now, but this doesn’t feel at all forced or needless.

The doll herself/itself is actually given some physical menace this time (something the first film failed to do in all honesty), but without going full She-Chucky. It’s very subtle and quite chilling. In fact, the whole film feels like an incessant stream of scare sequences, with very little filler or dull stretches. Some don’t work, but the majority do. A tense scene ensues as a girl tries to stop lightbulbs supernaturally unscrewing, whilst “something” comes to life behind her. A stair-lift drags a victim inexorably to a grimly waiting presence. They’re fine moments of nicely crafted mainstream horror. If some things are obviously sign-posted as tools for later scenes (stair-lift, dumb-waiter, scarecrow, etc), you’ll still find yourself grinning broadly when they happen because they’re pulled off so well.

The film also benefits from the acting of Wilson and Bateman. Two of the youngest scream-queens around, they’re both excellent in their roles and show a maturity beyond their years. They can also produce Olympic-standard screams, and don’t think that the story takes it easy on them with their age and status either … because it doesn’t. This R-rated horror throws in some really ghoulish moments and injuries. By contrast the adult cast (with the exception of LaPaglia) feel a little underused, especially Otto who doesn’t figure in the story as much as the trailers would have you believe.

The only shortcomings are with the predictability of some set-pieces, and the issue that it’s just plain … silly in parts. The fact that the police allow the cast to remain in the house (or don’t arrest anybody) after a major event, just defies any sense of … any kind really. But despite the original true-life leanings, the franchise has gone way beyond any pretence of that, and is actually in the process of building its own mythology.

In any respect, it’s a good piece of mainstream genre, with enough cinematic touches from Sandberg to engross, and two great performances from the young leads to engage. Some might feel that the shared-universe perspective is pushing it a bit, but if this is the result, then we’ll happily live with it. And as to how this fits in with the first film (and “The Conjuring” itself), well… we couldn’t possibly say … but if you go in with that question, then you won’t leave with it. Dolly good.

A prequel that rises above its sources, with assured performances from the young leads, and a steady assault of scare sequences. It never approaches any form of realism, but it is great fun and Sandberg provides all chiller and no filler. On the evidence of this, the Conjure-verse could provide some welcome mainstream scares for some time. AnnaBelle-ieve it.
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