Annabelle: Creation is the latest installment in James Wan's The Conjuring series, which at this point is practically the horror genre's answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wait, wasn't an eponymous origin story about this possessed porcelain doll just released in 2014? Yes, but that wasn't the real real Annabelle.
Set at some point in the 1950s, Creation manages to both largely sweep its 2014 predecessor out of the canon and slot itself neatly into the larger lore of Wan's series. We learn here that the nightmarish figure was originally crafted by doll maker Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) for his young daughter Bee (Samara Lee) -- and Bee, of course, is a nickname for Annabelle. Twelve years after his daughter's untimely passing, Sam and his mysteriously disabled wife (Miranda Otto) take in a nun named Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of orphan girls in the hope of finding a purpose to their lives. Unfortunately, curious young Janice (Talitha Bateman) seals everyone's fate by opening the house's one forbidden locked door -- the door to Annabelle's room -- thus releasing the doll trapped within and all of her evil powers.
While the plot is skeletal and the character development isn't quite enough to engender any real empathy in the audience, the scares are solid. This is due in part to director David F. Sandberg, who made his horror debut with 2016's Lights Out. While he's still finding his directorial footing, Sandberg provides Creation with the same uniquely creative camerawork that made Lights Out such a thrill to watch; his use of light and shadow skillfully evokes old-school thrills (after all, what's scarier than the unknown that lies in the darkness?). The unsettling score (and its occasional absence) also contributes to making the jump scares extra jumpy, while Wan's penchant for freakishly bendy demonic creatures (and the eerie record music they all seem to love) feels like this franchise's spooky watermark.
In fact, Wan's signature motifs are interwoven with fun little Easter eggs that delve into the mythology of the entire series (blink and you'll miss a nod to The Conjuring's evil nun, Valek, who's going to get its own origin story next year). The set design is also brilliantly creepy: The Mullins' sprawling, bucolic farmhouse manages to look comfortably familiar while still feeling unsettlingly severe and foreboding, juxtaposing cozy quilts with grotesquely hanging doll parts and garishly tinted stained glass...and crucifixes. Crucifixes everywhere -- and for good reason.
Story-wise, this film is nothing to write home about; there are some head-scratching plot holes that will disrupt the suspension of disbelief of even the most genre-loving devotees. However, it does present a decidedly better explanation for the nightmare-inducing porcelain doll than its Satanic-cult-centric precursor, and if you're looking for a good dose of heart-pounding thrills, Annabelle: Creation is worth a trip to the theater.