"Annabelle: Creation" Is Scarily Formulaic

New Line’s “Annabelle: Creation” arrives with the dubious distinction of being a prequel to a prequel, coming after but taking place before 2014’s amateurish “Conjuring” spin-off “Annabelle.” With three times the budget of its predecessor, “Lights Out” director David F. Sandberg and returning screenwriter Gary Dauberman have been afforded a sheen that instantly raises “Creation” over its cheap-looking precursor. Great, but where are the scares? Where each film in the Conjuring universe to date has delivered on at least that front, “Creation” doesn’t, limping along on the backs of thinly sketched characters and a procession of loud noises.

The film opens in the early 1940s. An unexcitable dollmaker named Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) are living a quiet rural life with their 7-year-old daughter when a tragic roadside accident takes her life. We unceremoniously jump forward twelve years and Samuel is in the process of taking in a nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), and six girls whose orphanage was recently shuttered. Young Janice (Talitha Bateman), her frail body ravaged by polio, and best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) quickly become targets of a malevolent spirit haunting the house, the identity of which leaves no room for suspense.

The presence is, of course, the ghost of Samuel and Esther’s daughter. Affectionately referred to as “B” in the film’s prologue and inevitably revealed as the eponymous Annabelle, her spirit is initially locked in a closet, inhabiting one of her father’s inexplicably creepy dolls. Then a curious Janice unleashes her.

Not even this children-in-peril setup is enough to make Sandberg’s unimaginative staging remotely frightening, with Dauberman’s screenplay seemingly consisting of an inordinate number of sound cues. Insert loud noise here! The cast is unconvincing across the board, although they’re given nothing to work with but bare bones characterization and heaps of predictable reaction shots. Only Otto’s mysteriously disfigured Esther breeds a hint of intrigue, and even then the character wastes away out of sight until her number is called for a pointlessly gory death scene.

All of this is to say that Sandberg and Dauberman can’t summon a single distinguishing mark, their film disintegrating in comparison to James Wan’s emotionally labyrinthine and genuinely terrifying Conjuring sequel. The Conjuring branding would be the worst enemy of “Creation” if its creative team weren’t so incapable of conjuring scares. The admittedly arresting production design and period detail don’t add a lick of horror to the proceedings, only underlining the limpness of the story being told.

Even the first “Annabelle” was chilling in short bursts. “Creation” is dead on arrival, hoisted by its own universe-building petard. As a prequel to a prequel there’s virtually nothing that can happen within to take us by surprise. It’s no more than two hours of filling narrative gaps that didn’t need to be filled in, and doing it as conventionally as possible. Less demanding genre fans might get their base level fill. Most will be left wondering if they’ve ever seen an exercise in horror branding more lifeless than this. Odds are they haven’t.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: August 11, 2017
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Anne Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto
MPAA Rating: R (for horror violence and terror)