“Annabelle: Creation” back-engineers the tale of the demonically possessed doll — the latest version of a demonically possessed doll — into an origin story that is a veritable grab-bag of terror.
The director of the simpler and superior “Lights Out” takes his best shot at making us quake, jump or recoil at demons, dolls, scarecrows and puppets. But while David F. Sandberg uses his silences well and doles out the early chills like a doctor worried we’ll get hooked on thrills, that grab bag is mostly stuffed with cliches. And if we’re talking back to the screen, as audiences often do at horror pictures, it’s because we’re two steps ahead of the plot and trying to hurry this lumbering beast along, or correct its lapses in logic or its anachronisms.
In the 1940s, a little girl named “Bee” is killed in a motoring accident. Her mother (Miranda Otto) grieves, and her taciturn doll-maker dad (Anthony LaPaglia) will never make another doll.
But years later, with his wife an invalid at their remote Southern California farmhouse, Dollmaker Sam invites the Catholic Church to set up a mini-orphanage in their home.
The half-dozen little girls under the care of Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) love having all this space. But there are a lot of shadows there, and a locked room with a spooky dollhouse and a closet holding an even spookier doll.
The teens are creeped-out, but the young polio victim Janice (Talitha Bateman) lets her curiosity get the better of her and her best bud, Linda (Lulu Wilson). They’re the first to connect the doll dots.
An “I can’t stay here” followed by “We need to leave” falls on the nun’s deaf ears. She hasn’t noticed how naturally creepy those two little girls are to start with.
So naturally, all hell breaks loose.
Sandberg opens the picture with a couple of dazzling camera moves and disorienting crane shots, and then settles down on the penny plain effects that work in most horror pictures. Shadows that spread, taloned fingers that reach out of the dark, a well you shouldn’t look down and a beneath-the-stairs hiding place you shouldn’t hide in are all classic horror tropes.
As indeed is the idea of a demonic doll. From “Twilight Zone” to “Chucky” to “Treehouse of Terror,” we’ve been treated to all manner of manikin monsters. Usually they talk.
Producer James Wan commissioned screenwriter Gary Dauberman to fold this tale back into “The Conjuring” universe, the many spooky hoaxes of ghostbusters/book-hustlers Lorraine and Ed “Amityville” Warren. The result is a clockwork horror picture where the trains run on time and the attempted frights arrive in their turn. There’s just too little that’s novel and even less that’s scary.
If you can’t get more than just a taste of terror from throwing half a dozen orphans into a haunted house, maybe your “universe” isn’t expanding at all and your “Creation” has run its course.
MPAA Rating: R for horror violence and terror.
Cast: Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto
Running time: 1:48