If we have learned anything from the Cooking Channel, it’s that talent isn’t defined by the ingredients you use but what you do with them. By that measure, director David F. Sandberg is an alchemist of the first order, taking the base – even leaden – components of horror and whipping them into a shivery chiffon of dread.
The Swedish filmmaker did it with his debut feature, “Lights Out,” which milked a deceptively simple, yet sublimely spooky premise – the boogeyman only appears when the lights go out, and vanishes as soon they’re back on – for all it was worth. And he has done it again – with even cheesier material – taking the cliché-filled pantry of the Devil-doll prequel “Annabelle: Creation” and turning out a dish that, while pulled together from the familiar components of the ghost story, is uncommonly, nerve-wrackingly satisfying.
The recipe Sandberg uses is one we’ve seen before, mixing bits and pieces from a screenplay by Gary Dauberman (who also wrote the much less effective “Annabelle,” a 2014 spinoff from the universe of “The Conjuring”). The 1950s-set tale, which centers on orphans living in a remote, sprawling house, complete with balky electricity, a drafty dumbwaiter and an abundance of secret crawl spaces, also features: a locked room; a dead child; a well; a reclusive invalid who wears a “Phantom of the Opera”-style half-mask; and, for crying out loud, a nightmarish scarecrow.
Oh, yes: The house’s proprietor is a retired dollmaker, whose magnum opus is the titular, demented-looking poppet – one you wouldn’t expect to see on any sane person’s bookshelf, let alone in the toy aisle.
Twelve years after losing their daughter, known as Bee (Samara Lee), in a car accident – shown in a startlingly abrupt prologue – Sam and Esther Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto) open their home to six orphaned girls and a nun (Stephanie Sigman). The youngest of the girls are sisters Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman), the latter of whom walks with a leg brace and crutch as the result of polio. Sandberg makes good use of her limited mobility, as you might expect.
In short order, Janice begins to see spooky apparitions. And the aforementioned doll – which she discovers in a locked room lined with pages from the Bible – just won’t stay put.
None of this is new, and in lesser hands, it would easily become tedious. But Sandberg knows how to ratchet up suspense, composing shots filled with beautiful shadows, in whose corners there always seems to be lurking something scary: a ghostly little girl; a doll that looks like the spawn of Howdy Doody and Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”; and something far more sinister.
“The Conjuring” is a good movie. Its sequel, not so much. “Annabelle,” which took a small part of those films’ world – a prop, really – and expanded on it, was an uninspired first crack at injecting some life into the trope of the demon doll. It didn’t work.
On paper, “Annabelle: Creation” shouldn’t work, either. But to be fair, what horror movie doesn’t sound stupid when you talk about it? Horror works – or it doesn’t – in the flickering, moving images of the screen, not the page.
Sandberg knows that. His artistry, for that’s what it is, is like that of the dollmaker Sam Mullins: to take inert material and create a living, breathing thing.