You have to give it to the creators of The Conjuring franchise: When all other studios are tripping over themselves to ride the coattails of Marvel’s immensely successful cinematic universe, throwing bucketfuls of cash on whatever intellectual property they can resurrect and slap on catchy names like Monsterverse, Dark Universe, and the most recent attempt at a Stephen King-verse, The Conjuring series has effortlessly spun off into a successful cinematic universe of its own, the CCU if you will. Loosely based on cases that real-life paranormal investigators (and, cough, conmen, cough) Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in the series, although they don’t appear in Annabelle: Creation) have “worked” on, The Conjuring cinematic universe is currently dominating the spooky-but-fairly-benign-by-horror-standards PG-13 ghost stories that make jump scares and creaky doors opening and shutting by themselves their bread and butter.
This franchise is so successful, that Warner Brothers is looking into whatever spooky element they can find in the Warrens’ gritty Scooby Doo adventures to turn into a spin-off series. With the evil nun and the stick man from The Conjuring 2 about to get their own movies, I wouldn’t be surprised if the table that once moved half an inch during an exorcism session gets a five-picture deal (The Oak Table 2: The Oakening?). While we wait for those oodles of cheap jump scares, we’re offered plenty of them via the Annabelle movies, which were spun off from a creepy story about a creepy possessed doll told by the Warrens at the beginning of the first Conjuring. Yep, a brief intro meant to work as hook to get the audiences ready for the tone and style of the overall film has so far produced two features of its own, and shows no signs of slowing down.
The doll that suspiciously looks like it was originally created just to look scary (and which was a silly Raggedy Ann doll in real life) gets the unavoidable origin story in Annabelle: Creation. We’re not told this specifically, but if I had to guess I’d say the story takes place sometime in the early 1960s. After suffering from a horrible tragedy no parent should ever endure (which the film exploits as a cheap pre-credits hook—nice job there, fellas), a dollmaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto) take in a group of orphan girls from a church as a form of charity. One of the girls is Janice (Talitha Bateman), a good soul who suffers from polio, and therefore cannot play outside with the other children.
As Janice is stuck inside with nothing to do, she begins to experience eerie paranormal events. You know the deal—lights turn on and off on their own, doors open and close behind her, out-of-focus spectral figures sloooowly creep up on her, only to disappear at the last second, waiting for the third act to finally come so they can arbitrarily reveal themselves… Janice gradually comes to the conclusion that the doll hidden inside the family’s dead daughter’s room might be responsible for the visions that torment her. Is whatever demon hiding inside the doll after Janice’s soul? Did The Conjuring franchise make almost a billion dollars with just three movies so far?
Just like the MCU, the Conjuring cinematic universe has to adhere to a strict set of rules in order to fit in with the rest of the series. Regardless of whether or not the story calls for it, we have to have a spooky set piece every ten minutes, where the little girl has to creak around the old house and the manufactured tension has to be stretched beyond its limits, only to end in a long, drawn out shot that culminates in a CG ghost going “Boo!”, just so we can smash cut to a daytime scene that will serve as filler until we get to the next thrill ride. It’s like porn, where the money shot is the jump scare, and boy does Annabelle: Creation throw a bunch of them at the audience willy-nilly, praying that with so many of them at the helm, at least some should stick.
At almost two hours, it’s far too long for a cheapo spin-off horror flick. It’s as if screenwriter Gary Dauberman stuffed the script with every single idea for one of these set pieces, and director David F. Sandberg decided to keep every one of them without any care for pacing and storytelling rhythm. The third act becomes especially episodic and dull as we get one narratively disconnected and random ghost attack after the other. This is a shame, because the script actually begins to develop a cohesive thematic structure for Janice during the second act. As she’s more and more isolated from her peers, there’s a spark of actual coherent storytelling here as we wonder whether or not her deteriorating mental state is causing her to see these visions. If the visions are real, will her waning faith be enough to protect her? Yet all of that serves as nothing but filler in the end, as the third act throws all of that set up away for an endless series of cheap scares.
Sandberg is a stylish horror director with a unique vision. His previous feature, Lights Out, also wasn’t strong in the screenplay department, but showed a clear talent for building on genre expectations. He shows some of that flair here, with a smooth steadicam shot that introduces the orphans to the dollmaker’s house, as well as some trippy transitions, like the one that ends in a spinning shot from inside a well. But no amount of style can save Annabelle: Creation from ending up as yet another utterly forgettable, predictable and ultimately dull piece of cynical PG-13 horror franchising.
P.S: In an unintentionally hilarious moment, one of the other demons from the Conjuring universe makes a shoehorned cameo appearance. It’s as if all these ghosts are contractually obligated to haunt a shockingly small group of people.
Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Talitha Bateman
Release Date: August 11, 2017
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.