"Annabelle Creation" and horror's problem with wasted exposition
"Annabelle: Creation" didn't need to do much to outshine its predecessor, simply titled "Annabelle." The first spinoff of the very solid "Conjuring" films remains a terrible horror film with a very scary monster, so all its prequel merely needed to stand on its own to be considered a success. Mission accomplished on that front.
"Creation" is scary, offers real stakes, and slightly deepens the mythology around one of the largest dolls ever created. Can we talk about that for a second? Imagine a doll. Now imagine that doll is the size of a nine-year-old child. Why? Who ordered 100 (we now know there were to be 100 of these dolls created) of these monstrosities? Good Lord, what a freaking nightmare.
Size, and your take on the choice for a demon to center its attack on a child with polio aside, "Creation" is a solid entry into the Blumhouse brand. It starts slowly before working itself into a bit of a fever pitch, though, the latter of which will feel familiar to those who saw director David F. Sandberg's debut feature "Lights Out." In that film, the terror started early, and never let up.
"Lights Out," is not a very good film, in large part because it doesn't have the story necessary to stretch into a full-length feature film. But it certainly can't be criticized for its pacing, something "Creation" struggled with, at least to start. That's because of its two-parted exposition. Welcome to the choice all horror directors must make when dealing with #Mythology in their films. That's what I want to get into here. Let's call it the Blair Witch Crisis.
I'm not spoiling what is now a nearly 20-year-old film when I say nothing is revealed about the mythology of the Blair Witch inside the "Blair Witch Project." That was a decision made out of necessity: Because of budget, basically. It's now very trendy to leave out a lot of mythology or world building when making a horror movie (See: "It Came At Night"), though that's not typically how Blumhouse rolls.
That choice was already made for "Creation," because it's got mythology baked right into it. It wouldn't exist without this mythological superstructure, obviously. But we don't get any explanation for the origin of the demonic presence in the film until much, much later. That doesn't hurt the film, really, because we already know how the demon works: It uses the doll as a conduit. We've known that since "The Conjuring."
So, what's the problem? The first act. Because we're being introduced to all new characters, there's still a lot of exposition that needs to happen. Who are all these people? Why do they have the doll? Why does any of that matter? That's not a problem in it of itself, but it becomes one when it doesn't tie directly into the scares we get later.
Here's how you fix the first act of "Creation." First, you tie the mythology of the doll directly into the first act. Show the demon taking possession of the doll up front so that all the exposition takes place in one tidy package. Second, cut the 30 minutes of get-to-know-everyone-crap to 20 and intersperse that throughout the film.
What James Wan does remarkably well in the first two Conjuring films is show us who the Warrens are in the midst of the bumps in the night. Too often directors treat films like math problems. We do the multiplication (meet the characters), then the addition (now the scares), and then we get the result (the resolution). Interspersing exposition in with the scares is the best way to keep the audience hooked, and on the edge of their seat, throughout the runtime.
Otherwise you end up with an audience waiting around for the scares to show up. That's something that happens too often in horror films; the good news for "Creation?" At least it was worth the wait.