Even though we can’t see God, we can feel his presence. In this house, I feel a different kind of presence. An evil one. It’s coming after me. Because I’m the weakest.
The devil preys on those weak in faith, not weak in flesh & bone. You are as strong as any of us.
I heard enough awful things about Annabelle that I didn’t get around to seeing it, even though I’m a huge fan of The Conjuring films. If Annabelle was as terrible as I heard, then this is quite the corrective, because it’s a very good horror film. Sandberg is a good pick for director; as his previous Lights Out films have shown, he’s a director who finds a lot of terror in silence and suspense, in dark rooms and hallways where you can’t really see what it is that might be after you and that means he fits well in the universe of The Conjuring movies which James Wan kind of founded on those principles of ever tightening tension instead of cheap jump scares and loads of gore. He keeps the really frightening things just out of focus, maybe in the background or in a shadow or glimpsed in a mirror. Sandberg’s definitely gotten even better than he was with his debut; this is loads better than Lights Out, frankly, and doesn’t have the troubling messaging of that film. He’s helped along by some great performances from his two leading performers. Talitha Bateman is great as a young orphan suffering from polio; her disease both helps us root the film in its time period and, even more importantly, makes her even more vulnerable than your typical horror protagonist. She’s able to communicate a lot of real terror and loneliness; there’s a brilliant scene of her riding a platform up a flight of stairs and in the space of about ten seconds, Sandberg is able to change the entire tone of the scene from joy and engagement to disquieting fear. I’m already anticipating her showing up on my top ten female performances of the year list, honestly. Lulu Wilson is also quite good as the second lead; her wide eyed reactions are often surprisingly funny, but not in a way that pulls you out of the movie, just a way that gives you a chuckle to break up the suspense. There are actually a couple of really big laughs among the heartstopping frights; there’s an amazing gag with a toy gun and the Annabelle doll that got a real belly laugh out of everyone in my theater. The film, like The Conjuring movies, also has more going on that a scary story; the movie is many ways a story about faith and vulnerability. And, on that note, I give the film a lot of kudos for not pulling its ultimate punches; there’s genuinely unsettling darkness in the ending for a couple of characters, not because of what happens to them in the course of the movie exactly, but in the awful place we leave the characters. That’s pretty grim, especially for a movie with children as the main characters. This isn’t a perfect movie; there are some clunky bits, like a recurring bit with a scarecrow that’s just stupid and I’m still not sure that I like seeing the Annabelle story nailed down quite as much as it is here. I don’t mind background, but this movie syncs right up with the first Annabelle movie so as to leave us little in the way of mystery. But it’s a great horror experience, fun and scary in all the right ways. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – Sandberg’s artful direction amps up the tension and the lead performances generate real emotion; not on the level of the Conjuring films, but a worthy addition to the universe. 3 ½ stars.