As someone mostly unfamiliar with the Annabelle franchise and the larger Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation is a nice place to begin. Set in the mid-1950s, the film serves as the origin story for Annabelle, the sinister doll that connects the various stories within the Conjuring series. We learn early on that Annabelle was originally created by Samuel Mullins (played by Anthony LaPaglia), a master doll-maker who gives the doll to his daughter, Bee, as a gift. Shortly thereafter, Bee is killed in a tragic car accident, and in their grief, the Mullins make a pact with an unknown power that will allow them to feel their daughter’s presence in some way…. any way. Cut to twelve years later, and the Mullins have agreed to open their expansive house to a Catholic orphanage for young girls. Needless to say, what at first appears to be a blessing for both the children and their primary caretaker, sister Charlotte, turns out to be a curse. In fact, it isn’t long before all hell literally breaks loose.
Annabelle: Creation is frightening, and it’s supposed to be. This is not a movie for children, nor is it for those who are not inclined toward this kind of storytelling. After all, it is a film that is self-consciously within the horror genre. So it should come as little surprise that the fear the film evokes is created almost entirely by what isn’t seen, those moments when the film let’s our over-eager imaginations run wild. But it’s also the case that, even though we can never quite see what’s just beyond the camera’s frame, we hear it. In this way, sound design is paramount in a horror film, and Annabelle: Creation is no exception. Almost all of the most viscerally frightening moments in the movie come about because of the ways in which atonal clusters, dissonant sound effects, and then complete silence dynamically interact throughout. Indeed, it is primarily for this reason that, in those portions of the film where the stinger chords in the soundtrack fall a little flat, the film feels a little less frightening than it should.
But the few minor flaws in the film’s sound design (which could have been more about the theater I was in than anything else) should not distract us from the larger story that is rooted in a sense of prior trauma and loss and the many ways we continue to be haunted by these traumas long after their immediate effects have past. And this, in my mind, is one of the great strengths of the film. In light of my current research on the horror genre, I am increasingly convinced that the reason we continue to see so many horror films in the twenty-first century is because they are providing the broader culture with a much-needed avenue for navigating the various traumas that seem to define much of contemporary life. In many respects, we all exist now in a post-traumatic state, and films like Annabelle: Creation offer us an opportunity to reflect upon the real horror of our situation and how we might move forward in light of that which we have lost.
Though this film is part of the Conjuring franchise, Annabelle: Creation wasn’t written by the Hayes brothers, who are both professing Christian filmmakers. It is thus all the more interesting to note that, much like many other supernatural horror films, Annabelle: Creation still prominently features religious figures and symbols, specifically Christian characters and practices. As we discussed at our recent screening of the film, the production company even brought in Father David Guffey, a Catholic priest, to bless the set. As a result, the film deals sympathetically with religion and with the religious characters in particular (e.g. the nun and the priest), but it does render them a bit impotent in the face of the demonic, which makes me wonder what the presence of religious characters contributed to the film other than to grant it a kind of quasi-spiritual overtone and to connect it to the other Conjuring films, which have plots more clearly rooted in exorcism reports.
At the end of the day, Annabelle: Creation is a solid effort. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s sure to be a fun ride for anyone who loves scary movies and is also interested in stories of supernatural terror. My only question is: what kind of doll-maker would ever think that a doll that looks like Annabelle would be anything but super creepy? Who needs to worry about being haunted by demons when you’ve got that thing staring you down at night?