The setting: A midcentury Andrew Wyeth landscape with an Edward Hopper house. A busload of orphans and a kindly nun move into a mansion run by the saturnine Mr. Mullins and his recluse wife. We know why the Mullinses are so gloomy: Years earlier, their daughter Annabelle was killed in a car crash, and her old room remains stuffed with creepy vintage toys. Orphan Janice (Talitha Bateman), crippled by polio and neglected by other girls, is quickly lured into the room, where she finds an unpleasant-looking doll and winds up terrorized by a demonic force in the form of the dead daughter. Only her big-eyed, dorky friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) guesses what’s happening, and no adult believes her until people start getting ripped apart.
“If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?” Don’t laugh, but the line from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw apparently impressed the writers of Annabelle: Creation. This capable if conventional haunted house movie assumes a grave sweetness while it concentrates on the intense friendship between its two young protagonists, who deserve more screen time before the standard phantasmagoria of the Conjuring franchise crowds in—scary antiques, bone-snapping demons, malicious tea party dollies. Nonetheless, the thoughtful characterization of the girls deepens the dread. At least, I think that’s why I found myself trying to burrow into my seat from terror, feeling like a giant sucker for cringing at decades-old tropes.
Annabelle: Creation has other virtues: the observation that even tiny groups of children form exclusive cliques, some inventive horror schtick involving a dumbwaiter, and the opportunity for the art department to splurge on spooky old furniture and excellent period costumes. Even if it ends with some incongruous gore and an oafish tie-in to the other Conjuring films, it still looks great, aces the Bechdel test, and audibly scared the bejesus out of everyone at the preview. I can think of more shameful ways to nourish your fear of dolls.