One of last year’s best horror surprises was Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil, a film that looked and sounded like another franchise cash-in, but was in reality much, much better than that (and definitely better than the first Ouija). Similarly, Annabelle: Creation doesn’t inspire highest of hopes, being an origin story for the titular doll from the lousy but hugely successful 2014 spin-off of James Wan’s The Conjuring. But guess what? It ain’t bad. It’s undoubtedly a marked improvement over Annabelle. Before Gary Dauberman’s script begins syncing up to cinematic-universe obligations, it feels more like a solid standalone work than a franchise entry.
Like Origin of Evil, Annabelle: Creation benefits from having a proficient, genre-reverent craftsman at the helm. Here it’s David F. Sandberg, who’s already demonstrated his aptitude for generating heart-stopping shocks in his otherwise patchy debut feature, Lights Out. If the latter somewhat overloaded the jump-scares, this one’s comparatively more measured in its delivery. The plot’s not going to bowl anyone over with unexpected revelations (and all is forgiven if you can’t tell the difference between Annabelle, Insidious or The Conjuring by this stage). But Sandberg’s atmospheric build-up, attentively table-setting the elements — an orphanage of young girls, a grieving couple, the demonic doll — goes a long way to keeping us absorbed ahead of the supernatural spook-a-thon. Funnily enough, Origin of Evil’s creepy kid antagonist Lulu Wilson shows up in the cast, but passes the evil-child-of-the-year baton onto Talitha Bateman, who’s terrific as a polio-suffering orphan bearing the full brunt of the film’s malevolent entity.