Origin stories always pique an audience’s curiosity, because they address the hows and the whys behind some of film’s most interesting characters. Superhero films such as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” reveal the motivating forces behind the mask, teaching us that we fall so we may learn to pick ourselves up, or that with great power comes great responsibility.
But what about the origins of supervillains? Better yet, what about creepy supervillain dolls? What drove Satan to want to possess a doll? If, for some reason, you’ve actually asked yourself that question, then you might have to look further than “Annabelle: Creation,” David F. Sandberg’s prequel to “Annabelle” (2014), because this film’s only interesting answer is — in a deep, devilish voice — for “your soul.”
Situated in the universe of “The Conjuring” series, “Annabelle: Creation” backtracks 12 years before the events of “Annabelle.” Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and six orphaned young girls, including Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson), are displaced to the Mullins family’s large estate at the grace of Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) — a retired dollmaker and father — and a bedridden and handicapped Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto). From there, director Sandberg exercises the usual tropes of the horror genre, to expected but effective results.
The dark is never a safe place — things inexplicably move on their own, and the familiar, innocent images of adolescence represented in dolls are corrupted when the lights go out. It’s a familiar concept, but these tropes are at least efficiently used for creative scares. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre is well-versed in the horror genre (“The Hills Have Eyes,” “Silent Hill: Revelation,” “Mirrors”), and he smoothly and patiently guides the camera through the creaking dark corridors of the Mullins house, deliberately framing shots to show and conceal precisely what’s necessary to build suspense. When Alexander locks onto a single perspective, one can only uselessly beg for the camera to turn around or check the other corner.
Sound designer William R. Dean (“The Hunger Games,” “The Revenant,” “Skyfall”) should also be lauded for the unsettling sound production he develops for the film. Every creak of the house, turning knob and slammed door is emboldened to poignant and chilling effect.
And the spaces the characters inhabit are equally crucial to maintaining a constant ominous feeling. Thanks to production designer Jennifer Spence (the “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity” franchises), the Mullins house is the perfect visual exposition for the fate of all its inhabitants. The house is built with many architectural motifs of a cathedral, as if the Mullins were always trying to protect themselves from some unholy presence. As soon as one of the girls forebodingly comments, “We’re gonna need a map to find our way around,” it’s obvious that everyone is probably screwed.
But beyond the technical achievements of the film, what you see is what you get. Although the film’s tagline claims that “you don’t know the real story,” in a way, anyone remotely familiar with the horror genre — or really any movie with biblical demons — probably does. The conflicts and resolutions (or lack thereof) are all the same. Several images of the film are explicitly reminiscent of “The Exorcist” (1973) and “The Woman in Black” (2012).
Explanation of Annabelle’s origin is blandly sprinkled throughout the film. The audience can see Samuel Mullins’ meticulous process of creating the fateful Annabelle doll but later on is given a fairly anticlimactic reason as to why the doll is possessed by the demon in the first place.
With this film serving as another addition to universe of “The Conjuring,” it’s difficult to discern whether screenwriter Gary Dauberman and the producers of the series are really concerned with anything other than moving the franchise forward from point A to point B, with no foreseeable endgame in mind.
New Line Cinema can continue to bank on the franchise’s consistent box-office success, but “Annabelle: Creation,” albeit a satisfying voyeuristic product, is just another piece of hay in the haystack of horror films.