I can’t remember the last time I saw an audience react so enthusiastically as the crowd of late teens and early twenty-somethings in attendance at the opening-night late show of Annabelle: Creation. I was about to chastise the group seated to my left for their constant commentary when I realized that I’d have to give the entire theater a lecture in cinema etiquette if I wanted to screen this movie in silence. So I resigned myself to the grindhouse call-and-response experience, and it proved almost as entertaining as the film. I can’t say every outburst was a well-timed bon mot, but alongside each to-be-expected “Don’t go in there!” there were at least a few notable comments — and, much as it pains me to acknowledge this, it was probably a beneficial ego-check for this jaded critic to experience the exuberant chaos of an audience who wasn’t on the clock.
Creation is that rarest of cinematic aberrations: an overt cash-grab of a prequel to a spinoff that still somehow manages to justify its own existence. While I enjoyed James Wan’s surprise hit The Conjuring when it premiered in 2013, I would never have speculated at the time that it would generate a successful franchise. Four years later, the creepy doll that could continues to draw audiences, and if the connective narrative tissue shoehorned into Creation can be taken as any indication, the producers have no intention of letting this series die. If subsequent films are on par with this one, that may not be such a bad thing.
Set in an unspecified stretch of the mid-1950s, Creation veers from Americana to American Gothic in the opening moments of the film, as a small-town dollmaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto) go from blissfully doting family to tragic empty-nesters in a few brief frames. Over a decade later, they open their sprawling farmhouse to a group of girls from a Catholic orphanage and their guardian (Stephanie Sigman), whose nun’s habit seems to exist solely to tie this film to the overt religiosity of its predecessors.
The cast of relative unknowns performs constantly well, especially young Lulu Wilson (Ouija: Origin of Evil), whose parents seem hellbent of crafting a career for her as the child-star equivalent of a B-movie scream queen. Of course, the house has another inhabitant — a garishly painted doll named Annabelle.
Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) clearly has the technical acumen and depth of genre awareness to provide some compellingly spooky set pieces, and his methodical pacing and reserved use of jump-scares keep an essentially derivative film from lapsing into redundancy. If it’s not the most original horror film to hit theaters in recent memory, it’s at least good at what it does. Accepted on its own terms, Annabelle: Creation is a passably diverting low-budget scare-fest perfectly suited for those in the market for such proposition — and if you enjoy it half as much as the audience I saw it with, it’ll prove to be well worth your time. Rated R for horror violence and terror. Now Playing at AMC classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.