Do grieving parents really pray to have their dead child’s spirit move into a grotesque doll? Or is it just parents in dopey horror movies?
That’s the ill-advised impetus for this third sequel to “The Conjuring.” Vivid camerawork and production design are agreeable to the eye, but the story grows irritating to the brain. None of the characters in “Annabelle: Creation” appear to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.
In the 1950s, the residents of a shuttered orphanage arrive at a rural California farmhouse that will be their new home. The owners, a glum doll maker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his bedridden wife (Miranda Otto), hope this charitable act can erase the memories of their own family tragedy from a decade ago.
The six girls in the care of dedicated nun Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) include polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her inseparable best friend, Linda (Lulu Wilson). But an “evil presence” begins to separate Janice from the others. Her hobbled condition doesn’t stop her investigating the two-story house, with its dumbwaiter, motorized stairway chair and a locked bedroom that once belonged to a child.
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Locks have a way of unlocking themselves in rooms such as these. In there she discovers a handmade wooden doll with bulbous eyes and a fixed grin. Janice becomes increasingly drawn to it, especially after it appears to leave notes for her that say, “Find me.”
Perhaps that’s also a note screenwriter Gary Dauberman wrote in desperation to director David F. Sandberg. Because the writer’s promising setup progressively gets abandoned for arbitrary scares and dim revelations.
As displayed in his respectable debut, “Lights Out,” Swedish filmmaker Sandberg appreciates the subtleties of haunted house movies: hearing faraway footsteps, glimpsing movement in the shadows, finding clues that everything is not as it seems. He takes advantage of unnerving cinematography by Maxime Alexandre (“High Tension”), who prefers inching zooms and twisting overhead shots. The eeriness is profound in this isolated, austere locale.
But the finesse soon gets co-opted by CGI fiends shouting they want to eat “YOUR SOUL!”
It’s not just the titular doll that haunts the place. There’s a gangly horned demon, a creeping black mist, a living scarecrow and a ghostly little girl. There might as well be a mummy, dragon and telekinetic prom date. This evil never settles on what form it is taking, so the residents remain completely overmatched. They could end up battling anything at any time.
Imprecise malevolence doesn’t always sink a horror flick. “The Ring” “Drag Me to Hell” and the upcoming “It” remake (also penned by Dauberman) embrace the model. Yet “Annabelle: Creation” carries no forward momentum. There’s no ticking clock. No kidnapped victim to save. No mystery to solve. The characters snoop around and then wait for something bad to happen. Then they do it again.
“This goes on forever,” one of the orphans exclaims while exploring the house.
It sure does.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R for horror violence and terror.