Sandberg slays this shocking summer surprise

I’m probably not someone who should write about horror movies.

Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy horror films, it’s just that I’m a person who is very easily scared. As a result, more things freak me out than most horror fans, so I’m more willing to give lesser horror fare a pass just because it managed to succeed at the easy task of scaring me.

One of those “lesser” horror films I can give a pass to because it did get under my skin was the first Annabelle. The film is incompetent in many ways (John R. Leonetti’s shot choices are baffling at points, especially considering that his day job is as a cinematographer,) but there were a few really well-done horror setpieces, with the cultist attack near the film’s beginning being a real standout. But at the same time, there was a lot of room for improvement, and with Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the first film, director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) fills a lot of that potential and delivers a solid film that feels more of a piece with the Conjuring films it spun off from than it does with its predecessor.

Twelve years after the death of their daughter, dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia, not bothering to hide his Australian accent) and his disfigured wife Esther (Miranda Otto) take in Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a small group of orphans following the closure of their orphanage. While everything starts out well enough, things turn sour when the polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) discover the room of the deceased Mullins daughter, and the unsettling doll that inhabits it.

The film’s biggest improvement over its predecessor is in the direction. David F. Sandberg successfully apes a lot of James Wan’s camera movements and tricks from the main Conjuring films (including the obligatory tracking shot that shows off the geography of the house,) but manages to add his own spin to the film’s look as well. He and DP Maxime Alexandre give the film a shadowy look that adds well to the tension, making any light shown in the terror sequences feel unnatural and offputting. It does help that Sandberg was working on more than twice the budget of what Leonetti had, meaning that there’s very little handheld photography to be found, along with a more consistent atmosphere.

But technical wizardry is not all that’s going on here: Sandberg’s casting here is excellent, especially in the child department. Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson are standouts in particular, with Bateman absolutely nailing her character’s insecurity and descent into evil while Wilson provides an excellent concerned foil to her problems. In the adult department, Stephanie Sigman emanates warmth and care as Sister Charlotte, Anthony LaPaglia is suitably distant as Sam Mullins, and Otto manages to make the most of her limited screentime, radiating sorrow as she rocks a Phantom of the Opera-style mask.

Where the film starts to falter is its structure. Franchise house-writer Gary Dauberman (who also wrote next summer’s spinoff The Nun, which is briefly teased here) uses a structure that leaves fairly little breathing room between scares, which became fairly frustrating for me specifically because it meant that I barely had enough time to get over the previous scare before the next one popped up. But then again, I probably shouldn’t knock points off of a horror movie for successfully being consistent in its scare delivery.

Creation does have other issues as well – outside of Janice and Linda, there’s four other girls that don’t get nearly as much development as they do, seemingly only being there for scares involving a ghost story and a seriously creepy scarecrow. And at 109 minutes, the movie feels like it could have been tightened up a bit into a leaner runtime, similar to the first film’s 99 minutes. But overall, I can’t get too angry at a legitimately successful horror movie. Sandberg gave it his all, and it clearly shows. The movie may not reinvent the wheel, but it met its goals and it’s worth watching for that factor alone. It may still not reach the heights of the main series, but it does build up room for more hope when it comes to the other Conjuring spinoffs that are currently in production.