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No need to beat around the bush, Annabelle: Creation is both significantly better than the 2014 Annabelle, a fast-money gambit courtesy of hack director John R. Leonetii, and not nearly as good as The Conjuring (or the surprisingly still terrifyingThe Conjuring 2 for that matter). There’s very little that might qualify as new in this prequel to a prequel and, as should serve as no real surprise, the scares are limited to the “things go bump in the night” variety. Nothing really dares to linger beyond curtains, aside from the fleeting memory of a few well-timed startles here and there, but David Sandberg, director of last year’s somewhat undeservedly well-liked Lights Out, does a good enough job orchestrating familiar horror cliches into playful tension. 

While Annabelle floundered in bland mediocrity, Annabelle: Creation finds its footing promptly. Dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), his wife (Miranda Otto) and their adorable daugter Bee (Samara Lee) live an innocuous rural life, hawking their artisan wares (the townsfolk go gaga for Mr. Mullins’ handcrafted plaything) and attending church. The tone is all children’s songs and country-mile grins. Busy hands make happy hearts material. Flyover country at its most content. One flat tire and loose nut later and the wee Bee is but a memory. Future Ghost roadkill

The story transitions a dozen years forward. The tortured Mullins exist still but loss has shaded through lives entirely. Secrecy and penitence haunt their faces. Mrs. Mullins countenance is halved, unexplained. Carved in two by a porcelain mask. Enter a displaced collection of female orphans, excited to move into the grandiose maw of the Mullins house before they soon learn that rules (and demons) haunt the hallowed grounds they now call home.

Screenwriter Gary Doberman improves upon his previous work (Annabelle) by creating characters with some semblance of depth. The polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman) and the caring but pragmatic Linda (Lulu Wilson, who haunted moreso in the all around superior Ouija: Origin of Evil) become a good focal point around which to build the story, their ride or die friendship giving us a relationship worth investing emotionally in. Paired, the two are sugary sweet, making oaths to never leave one another’s side. They commit to adoption only if by pair.

As Janice, and then Linda, take notice of some unexplained paranormal activity at play, the Annabelle doll emerges a taunting presence. What this second Annabelle spin-off gets right is just about everything having to do with the doll itself. Her presence alone enough to unsettle, Annabelle needs but the slightest tilt of the head to send a shiver down the spine. A soul-searing Mona Lisa, Annabelle’s eyes follow our nerve-wracked protagonists around the room, creepily staring after them.  The unearthly peepers hovering in Annabelle’s porcelain skull become a nightmarish go-to to put audiences at unease and it’s a mainstay that Sandberg returns to greedily. The effect is diminishing but nonetheless rattling.

Annabelle: Creation stumbles a bit over-showing though. There are some other demonic presences given physical form that blunts that eerie unknown evil quality that makes the Conjuring films so utterly terrifying. A looming scarecrow threatens to become a frightful force but when his true form takes shape, most of the intrigue built around him deflates. For as many jump scares as Creation is able to summon, there is little about the movie that registers as legitimately scary. There’s no threat that the scares will return home with you

As Annabelle: Creation barrels towards a bonkers conclusion filled with jet-black, bile-spewing demons, severely snapped fingers and unwitting victims torn in two, Sandberg lets loose. While there is very little novelty contained within the simple but fun pages of this possessed doll studio horror, Sandberg effectively compiles scene after scene of gleeful madness. But among these flashes of generally PG-13 friendly horror moments, there are a few nasty images that stick out. One or more bloody tableaus may have you questioning the MPAA. But by and large, the path that Annabelle: Creation  carves is fairly rote, leaving it to play like a greatest hits of modern scary movies. Though the actual work scene by scene is largely effective and admirably staged, the takeaway itself is muted by the fact that there’s almost nothing new brought to the table.

CONCLUSION: A notable step up from its predecessor, Annabelle: Creation is definitely still not on par with the haunting Conjuring franchise. More fun and silly than legitimately scary, this daffy spin-off houses a bevy of effective jump scares but fails to leave any lasting impression.

C+

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