I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the “Insidious,” “Conjuring” and “Annabelle” horror films that have become the gold standard of the genre in recent years. None of them are all that bad, but they represent the soft state of horror films in this new franchise-laden world of blockbuster cinema. The scary movie genre has been in a state of catatonia for awhile. It feels like years since we’ve had a consistent, diverse slate of horror films in cinema. There used to be healthy doses of slasher flicks, ghost stories and crazed madmen tearing through hapless teenagers with a chainsaw.
At some point, it felt like the genre had been split in two. The “Saw” series was dishing out an annual dose of horror-porn gore while “Paranormal Activity” films were mastering the art of the PG-13 jump scare. The market got saturated and the horror film went on life support. “The Conjuring” films and spin-off series “Annabelle” are more traditional story-driven horror films, avoiding gimmicks that have sandbagged the genre for nearly a decade. At their core, they are old-school ghost stories with a lot of style and atmosphere. The only problem: They’re kind of boring.
“Annabelle: Creation” is another good-looking bore with occasional flashes of fright. For the blissfully unaware, “Annabelle: Creation” is the second prequel to “The Conjuring” explaining the origins of a super-creepy doll that taps into everybody’s primal fear of being terrorized by a porcelain skin dead-eyed toy. After losing his daughter to a freak accident, Samuel (Anthony LaPalgia) opens the world’s spookiest home in the middle of nowhere to a nun and her adorable pack of orphans. What could possibly go wrong?
Janice (Talitha Bateman) is the world’s most manipulative protagonist; an adorable young girl suffering from polio who walks around with a cane. She’s less of a character and more of a walking target with the most screen time. It seems Samuel and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), had been under the impression their dead daughter wanted to come back and possess a spooky doll. Turns out, it isn’t the sweet spirit of their dead daughter but a super-evil demon interested in indiscriminately murdering innocent people and chewing bubble gum … and it’s all out of bubble gum.
Director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) spends more time on “ghost” than “story.” The plot of the film is remarkably thin. The hell-raising demon exists in a rule-free afterlife where it can do anything at any time. Its purpose, powers and scope of terror it inflicts, all seem based on the three-act plot structure of a feature film instead of a story-motivated purpose. The movie manages a couple of decent scares, but all of them stem from the exact same formula of a long, lingering silence followed by a loud noise and quick moment of terror. Nothing in the movie feels earned. It’s all just the product of inevitability. There’s lots of things that happen in the movie for no other reason than “it’s a horror film.”
The movie works on a technical level. It looks great and has a great sense of tone and atmosphere. But a beautiful world in which to tell a story matters little when the story is as nebulous as the vapor used to create antique-looking interior shots. I’m always appreciative of a nice coat of polish, but I’d take an ugly horror film with a great story over a something beautiful and vacuous.
Producer James Wan has crafted a lot of popular horror films in the 21st century, but movies like “The Conjuring,” “Insidious” and “Annabelle” feel like very safe, very thin versions of the classic ghost story. Like a wispy phantasm, “Annabelle: Creation” is a shapeless, undefined mass of a movie. Interesting concepts are never developed beyond the initial germ of an idea. If they could start weaving well-developed characters into these supernatural concepts, maybe they’ll have something other than the cinematic equivalent of a lifeless corpse.