The opening sequence of Annabelle: Creation shows a wooden doll being assembled by a pair of dexterous, experienced hands. It’s a vision of painstaking individual craftsmanship in favor of mechanized assembly-line efficiency: In the final shot of the montage, a pen dips into view to sign off on the doll as the first in a limited run of 100. She’s not a mass-market product — she’s a collector’s item.
Annabelle: Creation, which grossed a robust $35 million on its opening weekend, easily outclassing the rest of a moribund multiplex field — isn’t nearly as singular or personal as its overture suggests. But such little hints of intimacy still point to its broader-than-expected commercial appeal. In a timely and well-researched article for the Los Angeles Times, Jen Yamato posits that Annabelle: Creation and its three preceding Warner Bros./New Line coproductions — not only 2014’s Annabelle but also the two Conjuring films — mark the horror genre’s “potent first stab at interconnected universe-building,” à la Marvel’s and DC’s respectively intertwined superhero titles. They stand as a savvy and successful attempt to shore up the popularity of unremarkable individual movies, via a cross-promotional branding scheme.
The puppet master of this experiment is James Wan, who undoubtedly has a thing for puppets. The sinister, tricycle-riding marionette of Saw (2004) may have seemed silly at the time, but he was as much a trend setter as Leatherface was for the lurid, true-crime shockers of the ’70s or Hannibal Lecter as the harbinger of the ’90s serial-killer vogue.
But he was a deceptive emissary all the same. The juicy, falling-off-the-bone brutality of Saw — whose title served as a double entendre for both a serrated implement and sheer, endurance-test awfulness for characters and audience both — got the franchise lumped in with Hostel and certain titles of the “New French Extremity” as torture porn. While its sequels indulged in comparable squalor, Wan’s heart was really in a quainter, comparatively gore-free form of horror, which expressed itself in the quite amusing ventriloquist-dummy freak-out Dead Silence (2007) (source of probably the funniest, sickest EC Comics–style twist ending in years) and blossomed in Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), scare machines that harked back to Amityville-style high jinks.
In these films, Wan displayed a real fondness for pungently cheesy iconography. There were darkened bedrooms; scratchy, vintage phonographs; grinning, red-eyed monsters perched atop furniture and peeking out from behind doors and through keyholes. With married paranormal sleuths played by Patrick Wilson (who also starred in Insidious) and Vera Farmiga as stand-ins for real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the old-school ethos was heightened by The Conjuring’s vaguely-based-on-a-true-story period-piece setup.
Such nods to authentic ghost-busting helped to drape a thin veil of authenticity over what might have otherwise seemed like hopeless clichés, while the devotion of the Warrens’ marriage (sweetly acted by the two stars) created something rare in a genre always torqueing itself further toward shock tactics. There was a sense of wholesome family values, at once threatened by and placed in pious counterpoint to the malevolent spirits around every corner. It’s not just that the Conjuring films gleefully borrow plot points and images from The Exorcist, they also reach back to its ancient, Judeo-Christian conceit of evil as an entirely external, invading force. Wan loves to strand his characters in pitch-black spaces (Wilson’s lantern-lit, first-person walk through a spirit-infested house at the end of Insidious is a miniature tour de force) but he’s almost completely uninterested in human darkness. When people wrestle with demons in his movies, they do so literally.
Wan’s love of cramming his movies with as much creepy stuff as possible accounts for the two Annabelle spinoffs, which gamely (and slightly hilariously) try to scare up a complicated origin story for a figure that was, for all intents and purposes, a bit of set dressing in the first Conjuring. (The real Lorraine Warren, now 90, still keeps the supposedly possessed Raggedy Ann doll under glass in her private collection; the movie version may end up being the most profitable prop of all time.)
After farming out the first Annabelle to his longtime cinematographer, John F. Leonetti, Wan hired David Sandberg for the sequel, which is in its way a similarly all-in-the family gesture: The Swedish-born filmmaker scored a hit for Wan’s Atomic Monster imprint in 2014 with Lights Out, a nifty and well-executed expansion of his own award-winning short film, which honored his producer’s preference for patient, well-prepared jolts over violence.
Annabelle: Creation works a similar groove, and its first half is good stuff. Reaching back further than the first Annabelle (which was set at the end of the 1960s and featured a Manson-style death cult), Creation spins a ’50s-era fairy tale about a humble doll-maker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto) who cope with unimaginable tragedy by invoking dark forces (always a bad idea, as anybody who has read “The Monkey’s Paw” will tell you).
An even worse idea: turning their sprawling home (which contains, it is hardly a spoiler to tell you, not only the Annabelle doll but also some other, more ephemeral tenants) into an orphanage. Pretty soon, preteen Janice (Talitha Bateman), whose loneliness is compounded by a case of polio, is entering forbidden bedrooms and seeing apparitions, which the supervising nun (Stephanie Sigman) of course dismisses out of hand.
These early passages are fun mostly because of the deftness of Sandberg’s direction, which favors fluid long takes and middle-distance camera setups instead of screen-filling close-ups, but like most prequels, Annabelle: Creation is hemmed in by its tightly constricted narrative obligations. The film exists simply to get us somewhere we’ve already been, and so the level of invention in the storytelling declines right when it should be ramping up. (The presence in the cast of 11-year-old standout Lulu Wilson, who plays Janice’s best friend, only points up how much more confidently similarly predictable material was played last year in emerging B-movie virtuoso Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil).
As for the film’s real purpose — that all-important, inch-by-inch world-building — it quietly aces the assignment: Its best scare is also its smallest, a blink-and-miss-it callback to the terrifying, pale-faced nun who materialized on a painted canvas in The Conjuring 2 (and who is slated to receive her own feature, the very imaginatively titled The Nun, next year). It may be that continually attempting to promote backup ghouls to franchise-player status will yield diminishing returns, and Wan’s own call-up to the brand-extension big leagues with Aquaman (after the box office bonanza of his assignment on Furious 7) could keep him at arm’s length from his haunted toy box.