Even if — especially if — you’re a fan of horror movies, the idea of another “Annabelle” film probably scares you.
“Annabelle,” the 2014 sequel to “The Conjuring,” was a massive disappointment, and not just because “The Conjuring” was so good. The sequel was a heavy-handed clunker, scary in places but lazy. Who needs another stab at it, so to speak?
Everyone, evidently. “Annabelle: Creation,” a prequel to the events of “The Conjuring,” is a surprisingly effective horror film, which is to say it’s scary in all the smart ways.
The dumb ones, too — this is a movie about a possessed doll, after all. That’s part of the fun. But director David F. Sandberg, whose short film “Lights Out” is terrific (the resulting feature-length version a little less so), is a welcome addition to the “Conjuring” stable, adept as he is at stretching out the tension between scares till you’re practically sweating, waiting for something horrible to happen to someone.
And oh, it does.
The film begins with what the title suggests: the literal creation of the doll, in the 1950s. Sam (Anthony LaPaglia),￼ a doll maker, is putting the finishing touches on the first, and presumably only, doll in this particular line.
No sooner is he done than his daughter, Bee (Samara Lee)￼ — real name Annabelle — leaves him notes for a hide-and-seek game. The thing about a horror movie is that you can’t watch an innocent game without a sense of foreboding. But Sam and Bee and wife and mother Esther (Miranda Otto)￼ are happy, romping around in their giant house in the middle of nowhere.
Then tragedy strikes, and we move forward 12￼ years. A bus pulls in at the home, with Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman)￼ and a group of orphaned girls arriving; they’ll be living here now. Sam is quiet and a little surly. Esther is bedridden, hidden behind a curtain in her bedroom. But they open their home to the girls — except for Bee’s room, which is locked and, Sam warns, stays that way.
For a while, anyway.
The youngest girls, Janice (Talitha Bateman),￼ who had polio and walks with a brace and crutch, and Linda (Lulu Wilson),￼ are shunted off by the older girls to the room where Esther made doll clothes. Of course it’s tremendously creepy, even in the daylight. (More on that soon.)
Then one night Janice hears a noise and sees the same note under the door Bee once left for her father: “Find me.” She thinks it’s the older girls playing around, so she follows, and winds up, of course, in Bee’s room. It’s preserved exactly as she left it, down to the dollhouse with working lights. In that house Janice finds a key that leads to a secret room. And in that room?
What else? The doll.
It’s eerie enough just sitting there in a rocking chair. But Sandberg, working from Gary Dauberman’s￼ script, works the scene perfectly. Is that the doll in the shadows? Where’d she go? It’s probably no surprise that the guy who made a movie called “Lights Out” is adept at manipulating light and dark for maximum unease. It’s certainly enjoyable.
So now it’s on. In the manner of these things, many boxes still must be checked — there have to be a few jump scares, agonizingly bad decisions must be made, people must die, secrets must be revealed. Check, check, check and check.
But there are also some nice detours from the usual horror-movie path. For instance, there’s a scare scene in broad daylight (at least it begins there) — a studio suggestion, Sandberg says. And the relationship between Janice and Linda goes from sweet to scary to heartbreaking. Risky business putting children front and center in this kind of movie, but Bateman and Wilson are good enough to make it work.
The ending gets the whole Annabelle mythology back on track (and includes a nod to the real doll, still in the collection of Lorraine Warren￼ and her late husband, Ed,￼ the paranormal investigators on whose work the “Conjuring” films are based).
“Annabelle: Creation” isn’t the equal of “The Conjuring,” or even “The Conjuring 2,”￼ for that matter. But it’s a well-made horror film and a solid addition to the canon.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
New Line Cinema presents a film directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Gary Dauberman. Rated R (for horror violence and terror). Running time: 109 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.