PLOT Several orphan girls move into a house haunted by a possessed doll.
CAST Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia
RATED R (gore and gruesome violence)
BOTTOM LINE A stock story, but the high scare-count should make this a hit with horror fans.
That hideous doll with the too-big eyes and the ugly smirk gets her second starring role in “Annabelle: Creation,” a prequel to the 2014 hit “Annabelle.” It’s an origin story that explains how this doll became such a formidable force of evil, and why she goes around sucking out people’s souls. It still isn’t clear why any doll maker would produce such a disturbing-looking object in the first place, but maybe not every question here needs an answer.
For instance, “Annabelle: Creation” takes place in what looks like the 1940s, judging by the fedora worn by doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and the location looks like inland Southern California, though none of this is clearly specified. That’s all right, because director David F. Sandberg (last year’s “Lights Out”) sets us up nicely with the death of the Mullins’ little girl, Bee (Samara Lee), and then, 12 years later, presents us with a bus full of orphan girls heading toward the Mullins’ now gloomy house. (That sprawling structure, found in Simi Valley and given a Gothic clapboard exterior by the filmmakers, is one of the film’s best characters.)
The orphans range in age from sassy teens to grade-schoolers, but we are most interested in young Janice (Talitha Bateman), whose left leg-brace is the result of polio, and her unshakably loyal friend, Linda (Lulu Wilson). Theirs is a moving and tender little relationship that keeps us caring about who lives and dies after Annabelle comes to life. (The screenplay is by Gary Dauberman, who wrote the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s kids-vs.-clown classic “It.”)
“Annabelle: Creation” is technically, if not quite thematically, the fourth film in the somewhat vaguely-defined “Conjuring” franchise. What is impressive about these films is that they rely on some of the oldest tropes in the genre but execute them with a generally high level of craft. “Annabelle: Creation” continues the tradition by giving the Mullins house some nifty features — a dumbwaiter, a crawl space, a hidden closet — and incorporating them into several effective scenes of tension and terror.
“Annabelle: Creation” may not be a fresh take on its material. Still, it’s well-staged and delivers exactly what it promises.