Fresh director can’t elevate bland horror prequel

Annabelle: Creation is the prequel to the spinoff of the ripoff of the most famous movie riding Paranormal Activity’s coattails. That’s where we are right now. Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

3/10 The eminent horror production studio has started to inject real talent into its movies, but it’s clearly not always going to be enough.

In Annabelle: Creation, a group of orphans moves into the spacious, rural house of the mysterious Mullins couple, Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia), who cares for the grounds, and Esther (Miranda Otto), who is bound to her bed and covered in a creepy Phantom of the Opera mask. The group soon learns that the house is haunted by their daughter, Annabelle (Samara Lee), who died 12 years earlier after jumping in front of a speeding car like an idiot and whose malevolent spirit bound itself to the series’ iconic creepy doll.

The backstory of Annabelle: Creation goes all the way back to almost 10 years now, to when the Jason Blum-produced Paranormal Activity made oodles of money on a shoestring budget. Blum would establish his own studio, Blumhouse Productions, and produce about a dozen sequels and ripoffs over the next few years that were all made for so little money it was essentially impossible for them not to turn a profit, no matter how poor they were. The first of these movies to get even a lukewarm critical reception, Insidious, hit theaters in April 2011, and it took over as the banner film and director James Wan took over as the production company’s rock star, which is a bad thing because he’s a bad director who makes bad, boring movies.

But after a few years highlighted by Insidious sequels and movies from his Conjuring franchise, which started two years later, Wan and Blumhouse started taking their extremely low-risk bets on rising star directors like Mike Flanagan, David F. Sandberg and Jordan Peele, all of whom were allowed to produce passion projects that resulted in some of the studios’ best films — Oculus, Lights Out and last February’s Get Out, respectively. In return, Blumhouse has been hiring these excellent directors to bring their talent to the obligatory but presumably awful sequels they produce. This finally brings us back to Annabelle: Creation, which is directed by Sandberg.

Under Wan’s leadership, Blumhouse came to specialize in atrociously boring movies so scare-light they could barely be called “horror.” Annabelle was one of the worst offenders, but I was excited for its prequel because of Sandberg. Annabelle: Creation is well-directed, but almost everything else about it is just as lazy, boring and awful as most of the studio’s other work.

We finally get a good look in this movie at the demon inhabiting the Annabelle doll, and it looks like fucking Nightcrawler. The glowing eyes on an otherwise black body are recurring motif from Lights Out, and seem to constitute Sandberg’s other main contribution to the project.

Writer Gary Dauberman’s script is absolutely horrific. It clearly came from the seed of a decent story about isolation — the main subject of the haunting is Janice (Talitha Bateman), whose polio-damaged left leg separates her from the other girls. The other characters aren’t fleshed out as well, but they are also mostly attacked through loneliness. As the haunting escalates, characters are often instantly and surreally alone as soon as they enter the house, despite the six orphans and three adults who are all on the property together — it’s probably just a consistent mistake for more jumpscare shenanigans, but it feeds into the movie’s attempted theme.

But to really make the good parts shine, almost every scene needs to be re-arranged and the dialogue needs to be polished to the point the characters sound like actual human beings. Annabelle: Creation starts with a scene going through Annabelle’s non-violent, non-haunting related death, then still needs an exposition scene later to bridge the gap from car accident to haunting. Not only does the first scene spoil a mystery that should hang over the movie, but it spoils it so poorly that Esther has to stop everything at the height of the action to finish the job.

As much as the plot cripples the movie, I’m not convinced Sandberg could have done better with a better script. The dialogue feels like placeholder text, but it’s just as much because of uniformly bad acting, which is a directing problem when it’s across the board like this. He clearly put a lot of attention into shot composure, rack focus and building tension through close-ups and that’s refreshing to see, but the scares remain telegraphed and lame.

The Wan/Blumhouse monopoly on horror could be heading in the right direction, but Annabelle: Creation is as boring as anything they’ve produced yet.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and a syndicated columnist with the Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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