In truth, dear reader, I was terrified. For much of the movie, my knees were shaking. I covered my face in fright with my sweatshirt (but only partially so that I could still see in order to review the film). I hoped halfway through that my bladder wouldn't freak out later as much as I was then. And after it was over, you bet your bottom dollar that I slept with the lights on after reading some good Jesus books. Oh yes, Annabelle: Creation is effective and frightening, a worthy installment in The Conjuring franchise.
Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to the entire series as it delves into the fictional origins of the infamous haunted doll Annabelle. The story goes, as explained in the first Conjuring movie, that the real Annabelle doll is such an evil and powerful conduit for the demonic that merely touching it can have the devils following you home. Set some twenty years before Ed and Lorraine Warren came across the doll, Annabelle: Creation takes place as some orphans, accompanied by nun Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman, Spectre, Narcos), move in with the Mullins family (Anthony LaPaglia, Without a Trace, and Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings) who has opened up their house to them a decade after losing their young daughter in a tragic accident. Almost immediately after they move in, creepy things start happening and quickly escalate to full-blown terror.
And is the terror scary! Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) proves that he can craft memorable and creative scares without relying on loud sound effects and strict adherence to the rule of three. Rather, his scares are built on crazy, nearly unbearable tension and a progression from relatively subtle scares to full-blown scares. In other words, like Jaws, you go for a decent amount of the movie seeing just the demon's horn before seeing the full shark. In this case, I jumped multiple times at both. He also lets you anticipate a scare at any moment, knowing you have a feel for the genre's rhythm, but just when you think you can't stand it any longer, he executes it in an unexpected way. Even some of the scares that were in the trailer don't lose their impact in the final product, especially when the Annabelle demon really ups its ante against polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman, The 5th Wave). Without a doubt, it is the scariest film in the series.
Now even though one of The Conjuring films' greatest strengths are its characters, Annabelle: Creation does not share it. While Janice and her close friend Linda's (Lulu Wilson, Ouija: Origin of Evil) relationship is the central focus of the film--and it is really sweet--not all the other characters are half as interesting to watch. The other orphan girls are written with little variation from the "Mean Girl" trope, and in this case, it's not much better than in your typical tween sitcom: they're given just the minimal amount of dimension that you hope they're not brutally skewered. Sister Charlotte is also disappointingly underwritten. As the figure of faith in the movie, she still only responds in shallow encouragements or plain disbelief of the children. It's not until the third act hauntings, I think, that she gives a sincere prayer. It's not that I think every Christian in a movie has to be the strongest of their religion--I don't--but the film could have been a bit more if there was more faith injected in it considering the characters. Janice even comes to Sister Charlotte, talking about how Annabelle is after her soul and that she doesn't feel the presence of God anymore. How great would it have been if this led into a theme about the Problem of Evil or why the demonic so wants to prey on the hearts of the faithful? At least with the Mullins we get a story that could fit right in with the other Warren Files about how the best-intentioned wrongdoings in darkness can still rain down hell.
But I don't think Annabelle: Creation set out to be about such things. It set out to be very scary movie that ties in with the rest of The Conjuring Universe, and it does that with flying colors and a handful of soiled jeans. There are some great scares in this one, most effectively with subtle visuals in the shadows. The film is very well-put together and staged, and I would be more than happy if Sandberg ended up taking the reins from James Wan for the third Conjuring film. I personally wish there was a little more character development and that it didn't try to tie in to the 2014 Annabelle film so much in its ending, but I'd be amiss if I didn't say it was a darn effective horror film. 4 out of 5 stars.