The 2010s have produced only a scant number of horror movies more top-to-bottom objectionable than 2014's Annabelle, the flagrantly unnecessary prequel about an absurdly overdesigned haunted doll first seen in 2013's The Conjuring. And given the repeated threats in the last couple of years that production companies Atomic Monster and New Line Cinema want to spin-off goddamn near every last paranormal entity we've seen in this series into its own standalone vehicle, it's not hard to go into Annabelle: Creation with the worst suspicions. Happily, it overcomes all of them. It's not as good as The Conjuring, nor as good as The Conjuring 2 - a very definite familiarity has started to creep in concerning how plots in this shared universe are to be structured, and particularly to the rhythm by which they dole out their scares - but it's as satisfying as any horror film I've seen in 2017 (not a particularly impressive achievement, to be fair), and so much vastly superior to Annabelle that it hardly seems possible that they're in the same franchise.

There are at least a couple of pretty straightforward reasons for this to be the case. The big one is a reduced emphasis on Annabelle itself: the doll prop, since its first appearance, has suffered from trying much too hard to look like some corrupt, vile, hell-spawned plaything, to the point that it's entirely impossible to take it seriously as a doll (the doll in the real-life story that inspired all of this folderol was nothing more eldritch than a Raggedy Ann; there's an in-joke to that effect near the end of Creation). It goes around the corner from "dolls are inherently creepy" to "well no, not that doll, that doll just looks fucking stupid". And it's to the credit of screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director David F. Sandberg that they only show Annabelle when necessary - which is still pretty often - and as much as possible only in half-lit glimpses, while much more of the terrifying heavy-lifting is done by dark corners and eerily empty barns and little girls with unpleasantly serious expressions.

The other is that Creation manages to snag for itself an inordinately impressive cast of characters, with two key roles played by a miraculously talented pair of child actors. The story of how the Annabelle doll became a vessel for evil this time around involves a house miles away from anything in what looks like the American Southwest, where a dollmaker named Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) lived with his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and their sweet little girl Bee (Samara Lee). In the late 1940s, Bee died in a car accident, and 12 years later, Samuel is taciturn, unsmiling bear of a man, while Esther lies in her bedroom, about one step removed from her own funeral. Nonetheless, they open up their home to serve as a way station for some orphans whose permanent residence went away for undisclosed reasons. Under the care of Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), six young women and children are to live in the Mullins home: Carol (Grace Fulton), Nancy (Philippa Coulthard), Kate (Tayler Buck), Tierney (Lou Lou Safran), Janice (Talitha Bateman), and Linda (Lulu Wilson). It's those last two that we're going to be most concerned about: they're the youngest, the ones who get dropped in a room by themselves, and Janice, housebound owing to a bout of polio in the recent past that has left her with her left leg in a brace, is the poor innocent that the evil spirit living in the house is going to target when it gets bored of causing doors to slide open by themselves. Linda is thus left as the one who has to figure out what the hell is going on, and at least try to fight it.

Good thing, then, that Bateman and Wilson are both superb in the roles - making Wilson's second consecutive best-in-show performance in a horror prequel that's better than it ought to be; she also appear in 2016's Ouija: Origin of Evil, in the possessed evil girl role - for the difference between Annabelle: Creation as a slightly overtired though effective spook show, and Annabelle: Creation as an involving, tense horror movie that keeps us glued to the goings-on no matter how predictable they get, is largely a matter of whether Linda and Janice emerge as real protagonists or if they're simply the little girls to whom a bunch of unpleasant, scary shit happens.

It's not hardly a complex character study, but it's more solid than it has to be, on a number of fronts: the painful violation of the sisterly bond between the two girls is a huge part of it, with Dauberman sinking just enough time into establishing their relationship that we have a real rooting interest in them. So is the understated tragedy of the Mullinses, which in turn owes a great deal to LaPaglia's bleary expressions and fatigued impatience (Otto is fine in a role that cuts off most opportunities for any character building). Hell, for that matter, even Sister Charlotte is a bit more distinct than she "needs" to be, a beacon of intellectually secure faith in this most Catholic of horror franchises (and who knows if we might even see more of Sister Charlotte in next year's The Nun, given the very obvious way an advert for that film is shoehorned into the middle of this one (ETA: we did not)).

They're all distinct enough to give Creation a bit of weight, just enough to make sure we care about what happens, rather than simply responding to Pavlovian cues that make us jump and squirm. That being said, those cues certainly work: Sandberg has already proven his horror movie bonafides with 2016's Lights Out (the only Atomic Monster film to date not set in the Conjureverse), and if Creation fails to dig into my bones quite as well as that one did, it still has its share of jolts and slow-boil atmospherics. Once again, this franchise demonstrates its peculiar, basically unique gift for havnig things get more scary the more information we're given about the nature of the threat; it's even enough (but just barely) to overcome how dumb this film's demon looks as we start to get a decent look at it in the second half (imagine Nightcrawler from X-Men and you're most of the way there, though you're probably also giving Creation too much credit).

None of this is particularly extraordinary; it's a solid horror picture and little more. But more than any other genre, horror does have a poor track record for getting up even to the level of "solid", and for that alone, I am grateful to Annabelle: Creation. For giving me hope that this endless series of Conjuring spin-offs might not inherently have to suck, I am even more grateful: because we're surely getting a lot of the damn things, and if they can all have this much of a firm foundation for this many things going bump in the night to such satisfyingly creepy effect, it might even be worth looking forward to some of them.

Reviews in this series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg, 2017)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)