HELLO, DOLLY

Annabelle’s no Bar­bie, but she’s ready to play

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC

In the open­ing mo­ments of “Annabelle: Cre­ation,” a ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient jolt delivery ma­chine, we learn that the rosy-cheeked de­mon doll known as Annabelle was one of 100 lim­ited-edi­tion toys fash­ioned dur­ing the 1940s. This news may trig­ger a mo­ment’s dis­be­lief — even be­fore the Cab­bage Patch Kids, was there re­ally that much de­mand for some­thing that looks like the love child of Pippi Long­stock­ing and Baby Jane? — fol­lowed by a shud­der at the havoc likely be­ing wreaked by the 99 other Annabelles, each of which might well be the star of her own grisly spinoff.

It’s not the least plau­si­ble idea, given the global pop­u­lar­ity of “The Con­jur­ing” (in which Annabelle first reared her wooden head) and its var­i­ous follow-ups, as well as the end­lessly self-per­pet­u­at­ing “cin­e­matic uni­verse” men­tal­ity that gov­erns stu­dio movie pro­duc­tion these days. Still, af­ter 2014’s cheaply ef­fec­tive “Annabelle” and now this creaky but su­pe­rior ori­gin story, it’s prob­a­bly best if the film­mak­ers lay the whole hell-pup­pet mythol­ogy to rest — for a while, at least. As these movies demon­strate ad nau­seam, Annabelle doesn’t like to stay on her shelf for too long.

Writ­ten by re­turn­ing “Annabelle” screen­writer Gary Dauber­man, the new

film opens with the doll be­ing lov­ingly as­sem­bled and painted by Sa­muel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), a toy­maker who lives with his wife, Es­ther (Mi­randa Otto), and their young daugh­ter, Bee (Sa­mara Lee), in a large clap­board house in a re­mote stretch of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia desert.

Cre­ation swiftly begets de­struc­tion: In a shock scene that feels im­ported from an al­to­gether cruder movie, tragedy strikes, leav­ing Sa­muel and Es­ther stricken with grief.

Twelve years later, the cou­ple open their doors to six or­phan girls and their care­taker, Sis­ter Char­lotte (Stephanie Sig­man), who are ini­tially thrilled to have such an enor­mous, lav­ishly ap­pointed new home to call their own. It’s a choice that im­me­di­ately dis­tin­guishes the movie from “Annabelle,” with its mid­dle-class L.A. mi­lieu, and es­tab­lishes a sense of con­ti­nu­ity with “The Con­jur­ing” and “The Con­jur­ing 2,” both of which told sto­ries sub­tly rooted in eco­nomic de­spair, about young women in ram­shackle homes that quickly came to feel like pris­ons.

The girl ex­pe­ri­enc­ing most of the haunt­ing here is Janice (the ef­fort­lessly sym­pa­thetic Talitha Bateman), who is, un­sur­pris­ingly, the most vul­ner­a­ble and alien­ated or­phan of the group, hav­ing been stricken with po­lio. Forced to wear a leg brace and later con­fined to a wheel­chair,

Janice seeks com­fort amid the for­bid­den relics of Bee’s old bed­room: an enor­mous doll­house, a pup­pet theater and, of course, the dreaded Annabelle her­self. The doll is of­ten shown seated in near-to­tal dark­ness, with just enough omi­nous back­light­ing to il­lu­mi­nate those creepy pig­tails and that dead, malev­o­lent stare.

Un­like Chucky or, say, the clown doll in “Pol­ter­geist,” Annabelle is never seen mov­ing of her own ac­cord; as some­one help­fully ex­plains at one point, she is Satan’s con­duit rather than his walk­ing, talk­ing hand­maiden. (Ei­ther way, she’s not ex­actly an ideal house­guest.) That she re­mains inan­i­mate and im­mo­bi­lized may seem a re­stric­tion at first, but it’s one that the Swedish-born di­rec­tor David F. Sand­berg, fresh off his solid de­but with last year’s horror-thriller “Lights Out,” suc­ceeds in turn­ing in­ge­niously to his ad­van­tage.

The re­sult may not be much more than an ex­er­cise in craft, a skill­ful demon­stra­tion of all the games you can play with long takes, mov­ing cam­eras, blurred fo­cus and cav­ernous pools of dark­ness. But craft is hard to over­rate these days, and Sand­berg’s tech­nique, far from feel­ing as­saultive or blud­geon­ing, has the ef­fect of height­en­ing your con­cen­tra­tion. When you find your­self anx­iously scan­ning ev­ery back­ground for sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity, or won­der­ing how a house full of peo­ple can sud­denly seem so omi­nously quiet and emp­tied­out, you know the film­maker knows what he’s do­ing.

A richer script might have al­lowed Sand­berg to en­gage more mean­ing­fully with his char­ac­ters — who, apart from the Mullinses (played with quiet grav­ity by Aus­tralian ac­tors LaPaglia and Otto) and Janice’s plucky friend Linda (Lulu Wil­son), are a fairly non­de­script bunch. The older girls roll their eyes at the younger ones and gig­gle know­ingly about boys, but the movie isn’t es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in the com­pet­i­tive dy­nam­ics or deeper anx­i­eties of fe­male ado­les­cence. Nor, de­spite Sig­man’s fer­vent Sis­ter Char­lotte and a few half­heart­edly wielded cru­ci­fixes, does it evince much of the spir­i­tual in­ter­est or rigor that might nudge it any­where near the grand tra­di­tion of clas­sic de­monic-pos­ses­sion movies like “The Ex­or­cist.”

In the end, “Annabelle: Cre­ation” seems most in­vested in me­chan­ics and minu­tiae: It’s fas­ci­nated by the squirm-in­duc­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of a mal­func­tion­ing dumb­waiter, or a none-too-re­li­able chair lift that Janice has to use to get up and down the stairs.

It’s keen too on mak­ing sure the events of this pre­quel and the orig­i­nal “Annabelle” snap to­gether as neatly as pos­si­ble — too neatly, per­haps. By the end, you are re­minded that the fran­chise model is sel­dom an ideal fit for the horror genre, not least be­cause of the un­avoid­able sug­ges­tion that Satan is oper­at­ing on some sort of yearly in­stall­ment plan.

It has be­come com­mon, un­der these cir­cum­stances, to in­struct the au­di­ence to stay past the clos­ing cred­its, but this is one case where I might ac­tu­ally ad­vise the op­po­site. Some things are scarier when you can’t see them com­ing, se­quels in­cluded.

Warner Bros. En­ter­tain­ment

THOSE en­coun­ter­ing a de­monic doll in the ori­gin-story “Annabelle: Cre­ation” in­clude a plucky or­phan played by young Lulu Wil­son.

Justin Lubin

THE RE­GRET­FUL maker of Annabelle is por­trayed by Anthony LaPaglia in the new in­stall­ment in “The Con­jur­ing” fran­chise.

Justin Lubin

DAN­GER ahead for the in­no­cent, from left, Lulu Wil­son, Tayler Buck, Talitha Bateman, Lou Lou Safran, Stephanie Sig­man, Philippa Coulthard, Grace Ful­ton.

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