2017, R, 109 min. Directed by David F. Sandberg. Starring Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Anthony LaPaglia, Joseph Bishara.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Aug. 11, 2017
We all have them: some configuration of words brought together that sound like fingernails crossed on a chalkboard. It could be “fusion cuisine,” “well, actually …,” or maybe “nice to e-meet you,” or “Nineties swing band.” They trigger a certain frisson of disgust, and the expression that is currently parking its bee in my bonnet is “cinematic universe.” Blame Marvel, I suppose, for having to create that term to distinguish all the superhero things that happen in their comic books from all the superhero things that happen in their movies. Unfortunately, now everyone seems to be fixating on that phrase, positioning (often questionable) spin-offs of popular franchises and series, or tediously mapping Easter eggs of celebrities to come up with cockamamie theories on certain cinematic cosmos. (Yeah, yeah, Quentin Tarantino, we know, but where’s the timeline on John Travolta’s journey from 1977’s Saturday Night Fever to 1985’s aerobic nightmare Perfect? I’ve almost cracked it, it’s just not there yet.)
All this gloss is to stave off me telling you to steer clear of the latest film in the Conjuring cinematic universe, Annabelle: Creation. James Wan’s first two films of the Conjuring series were both enjoyably old-school with the frights and also very well cast. But they have expanded the brand, first with the 2014 prequel Annabelle, about the demonic doll who had a brief cameo in the first Conjuring film, and now with this pre-prequel, directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), which goes back further to, you guessed it, the creation of the evil demon doll. Set in an unclear time and place, although context clues place it in the Fifties, dollmaker Sam Mullins (LaPaglia, distilling his dialogue into a series of unique grunts) and his wife Esther (Otto) lost their daughter to a horrific car accident. Twelve years later, as you do, the couple agree to take in six orphans and their guardian, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) to live in their farmhouse. But something’s not right, rooms are forbidden, everyone is shifty, there’s a dumbwaiter, a spooky well, and a creepy barn, and maybe the dead daughter is really a demon who has inhabited the Annabelle doll and causes death and bloody mayhem. It’s maddeningly unclear sometimes, the whole doll/possession/ghost story, as the filmmakers play extremely loose with the film’s internal logic. Couple that with the stale scent of well-worn dialogue. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Creepy dead girl ghost at window: “Can you help me?”
Orphan with polio: “What do you need?”
Creepy dead girl ghost who is now a demon face: “Your soul!”
Cue creaky door noise followed by five jump scares.
That sums up Annabelle: Creation, another entry into another universe that no one was really asking for, but here we are nevertheless. To add another one to the chalkboard list: “Yeah, no.”