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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Annabelle: Creation.]
Less really is more when it comes to horror. And with Annabelle: Creation, something is lost by exploring the backstory of the haunted doll first introduced in 2013’s The Conjuring.
Director David F. Sandberg’s contribution to the burgeoning Conjuring shared universe is to date the recipient of overwhelmingly positive reviews and strong box-office returns, admittedly for good reasons. The film, like most of its counterparts in the Conjuring franchise, is handsomely shot and effectively choreographed. It marries off-center compositions with generous negative space for staging inevitable background spookiness; for its first hour or so, its scares work, a collection of small, spine-tangling pleasures doled out judiciously and with obvious assurance.
After that first hour, though, we learn the truth of the doll’s sentience, and we learn, as with 2014’s Annabelle, that a hellish fiend has taken up residence in said doll, and suddenly the doll itself becomes a lot less scary. Its frightening hold over us dissipates. The movie is reframed entirely as a fairly stock demonic visitation story, and slowly we begin to wonder why we were ever afraid of the Annabelle doll to begin with (aside from its inexplicably eerie craftsmanship). In retrospect, that might not take away from Sandberg’s efforts behind the camera in Annabelle: Creation, and it might not make the Annabelle sequence in the original Conjuring film less experientially nerve-wracking, but it does divorce the series from the intrinsically chilling efficacy of the concept. Such is what happens when you take franchise maintenance a step too far.
Horror movies function best the less their viewers know about their subjects. Think, for example, of the dapper aberration in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, or the faceless entity from David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows; both monsters in those films have defined rules of behavior, and more importantly, an absolute dearth of backstory. If you want to go classic, look no further than Pinhead (Douglas William Bradley), who lacks an origin story for the better part of two movies, until we learn that he used to be human in Hellraiser II: Hellbound‘s climax. Once we’re privy to a snippet of Pinhead’s background, he loses his oomph as a villain, arguably not just for the rest of the movie but for the rest of the Hellraiser series. (And if you want to straddle the classic/contemporary line, recall how Rob Zombie’s Halloween films’ attempts to humanize Michael Myers take away from the character’s driving unfathomable qualities. He’s supposed to be evil without reason.)
That’s the case with Annabelle: Creation, too. We’re led to believe at first that the Annabelle doll is a receptacle for the spirit of one Annabelle Mullins, the daughter of dollmaker Samuel Mullins and Esther Mullins, his disfigured wife; the varying signs of haunting accounted for as the movie commences point to the presence of a ghost rather than a devil. As creepy things go, ghost children outweigh devils even when we see the precipitating event that shuffled them off their mortal coil. It hardly matters that we know how Annabelle died; the very thought that she’s still around, tormenting a gang of orphans to boot, naturally fosters disquieted response. Eventually, it’s revealed that when Annabelle died, Mama and Papa Mullins made the bonehead move of praying to whatever dark forces would listen to their pleas and give them their beloved child back. The dark forces listened, but the dark forces also lied, and that’s where we end up in relation to the film as its audience — hoodwinked.
The problem of too much backstory would be less of a problem if not for the existence of the first Annabelle movie. Annabelle: Creation marks the second film to take a deep period dive to explore the backstory of Annabelle the doll. When filmmakers, writers and producers give us the tools to comprehend a monster, the monster becomes perceptible, and, in becoming perceptible, it becomes considerably less, well, monstrous.
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Sterling K. Brown