Among horror franchises, “The Conjuring” and “The Conjuring 2” are among the smartest, and scariest, titles on the shelf — while their spinoff siblings, the idiotic “Annabelle” and the new and slightly sharper “Annabelle: Creation,” have labored to catch up.
As the title implies, “Annabelle: Creation” is a prequel, providing the origin story to the creepy doll that channeled a demon (and a Mansonlike cult) to ’70s suburbanites in the first movie. The prologue starts somewhere around 1950, with a kindly dollmaker, Sam Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), his loving wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), and their cute-as-a-button daughter, Bee (Samara Lee). The Mullinses have a perfect life until Bee is killed in a road accident.
Flash-forward a dozen years, and the Mullinses have offered their spacious farmhouse to a girls orphanage. Six girls, ranging in age from 8 to 16, move into the house, along with their guardian, Sister Charlotte (Mexican actor Stephanie Sigman). Mr. Mullins sets only a few ground rules: Don’t disturb the bedridden Mrs. Mullins and don’t go into the locked bedroom upstairs that used to belong to Bee.
The two youngest girls, the polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her best friend, Linda (Lulu Wilson, from “Ouija: Origin of Evil”), become curious about Bee’s room — which mysteriously opens for them, despite the locks. Inside they find a dollhouse replica of the Mullins home. They also find a closet with the scary Annabelle doll inside.
Once that closet opens, all the girls start to hear things going bump in the night. Janice and Linda become convinced an evil presence has been let loose — but they have trouble convincing the older girls, or Sister Charlotte, of the truth.
This prequel is plagued by the same weak spot as the first “Annabelle”: screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who apparently never met a horror cliché he couldn’t recycle. The recurring cycle of leaving one of the orphanage girls in a room, having her scream in the face of some terror, then running down a hallway until she runs into Sister Charlotte or the other girls, gets tiresome. So does the inevitable ending that dutifully ties this movie to its predecessor.
In spite of that, director David F. Sandberg, following up on his chilling 2016 debut “Lights Out” (which, by the way, starred Talitha Bateman’s brother Gabriel), delivers a tense nail-biter of a movie. He gets maximum shocks from casting shadows and manipulating objects, and he can get moviegoers to jump and scream with regularity. It’s worth seeing “Annabelle: Creation” in a theater, just to hear the ways Sandberg plays the audience like a calliope.
* * 1/2
The origin story for the demonic doll proves to be a stronger horror experience than its dimwitted predecessor.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 11.
Rating • R for horror violence and terror.
Running time • 109 minutes.