Starring: Lulu Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto
Directed by: David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”)
Written by: Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”)

As its tagline and advertising has repeatedly stated, David F. Sandberg’s “Annabelle: Creation” is the latest entry in the “Conjuring Universe.” Everything has a cinematic universe now, and it was only a matter of time before a horror franchise joined the bandwagon. With at least two standalone films already announced, one of which is teased here a couple of times, any scoffing at the very notion of a “Conjuring Universe” is outdone by the fact that there really isn’t a better franchise out there from which to pull.

One of the main reasons James Wan’s “Conjuring” films work so well is both films stage truly chilling and technically astute set pieces while also giving us rich characters that we care about and enjoy spending time with. The first “Annabelle” chapter, which was produced by Wan, had neither of these things and was derivative to the point where I’m still not convinced that parts of Gary Dauberman’s script weren’t just copy/pasted from better films. Furthermore, director John R. Leonetti’s 2014 original film also felt strangely restrained and dissonant, only fitting into the Warren lore by name. With Leonetti out and Sandberg at the helm, we are treated to moment after moment of finely crafted horror. Sure, the characters are still lacking, but at least we’re invested this time.

The first act of the film follows Samuel and Esther Mullins as they raise their daughter in a small village out in the desert country. All their happiness comes to a tragic stop when their daughter is killed in an accident. Some years later, a nun and a group of girls from a shut-down orphanage show up at the Mullins residence. Sandberg immediately establishes his location with a fluid tracking shot throughout the house, then creates set piece after set piece where things go bump in the night.

“Annabelle: Creation” takes its sweet time putting all its pieces in place, and that style of pacing creates a vital level of investment and intrigue. As Mr. Mullins, Anthony LaPaglia is the true heart of the film, injecting each of his scenes with a level of palpable emotion despite the fact that in some scenes he doesn’t even have any dialogue. Miranda Otto provides great supporting work as his wife, though she gets saddled with a chunk of exposition later in the film. While there isn’t much done to flesh out the group of girls, all of whom occasionally blend together, Sandberg makes things interesting by hinting at the terrible, isolating things that children can do to each other.

“Annabelle: Creation” works as a great mystery, but it is ultimately a great show of style from its director. There’s a great visual gag early on in the film involving an upside down cross, and there is one bone-crushing moment in particular that genuinely took me by surprise. It’s a concise and effective horror movie, a much-needed course correction and enticing look at things to come.

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