The most terrifying doll in cinema since Chucky is back, as “Annabelle: Creation” — the fourth installment in “The Conjuring” film franchise and follow-up to 2014’s “Annabelle” — comes to theaters Aug. 11 to provide the origin story for how the infamous Annabelle doll came to be possessed by a demon.
During a recent press junket for “Annabelle: Creation” in Downtown Los Angeles, the film’s top-billed stars expressed a myriad of reasons for being interested in the project, from being fans of the previous “Conjuring” films, to their intrigue with the script, to, as star Anthony LaPaglia put it, becoming the “Dad of the Year” in the eyes of his 14-year-old daughter and her friends.
But the stars were all unified in their primary reason for being attracted to the film: its director David Sandberg, who displayed an artful knack for the horror genre with last year’s highly successful “Lights Out,” and, according to the actors, wowed everyone on set with his vision and his composure in achieving it.
“What cemented it for me was meeting David,” explained star Miranda Otto on joining the project. “I felt like I trusted him and that it would be really fun to go on this journey with him. There was never any stress or tension involved with the making of this film: he knew what he wanted, and he’s very calm about what he wants.”
“David brought fresh perspective, which is always really cool to see,” added star Stephanie Sigman. “He loves making horror movies, and I I just love seeing him do that.”
Sandberg admitted that he almost turned down the chance to direct, as he was initially skeptical that the potential was there to add to the “Annabelle” prequel in a satisfying way. After reading the script, however, Sandberg realized that he had a special opportunity on his hands.
“When I was asked to do a sequel to Annabelle, at first, to be honest, I thought, ‘Is there more to tell there?’ ” recalled Sandberg “But then I read the script and realized it has this whole origin story with these new characters and new story that I could make my own. And it’s something that could stand on its own as well. You don’t necessarily have to have seen the first Annabelle to enjoy this one.”
This iteration of Annabelle begins in the 1940’s and focuses on kindhearted dollmaker Samuel Mullins (LaPaglia) and loving wife Esther (Otto) raising their adorable young daughter Annabelle. They’re a happy family, and all feels right with the world — until Annabelle is tragically struck and killed by an errant driver.
Twelve years later, Samuel and Esther begrudgingly agree to host a group of orphan girls, which includes best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman), who is afflicted with polio, and Linda (Lulu Wilson), as well as Sister Charlotte (Sigman), the benevolent nun who serves as the girls’ guardian.
Sister Charlotte and the girls are delighted to have found this new spacious home, but something about this house is undeniably off: Samuel seems hardened and fatigued, a bedridden Esther never leaves her room and is only seen in glimpses behind the curtains surrounding her bed, and the house is marked by an unsettling undercurrent that, as LaPaglia puts it, “the clock stopped in that house as soon as the Mullins’ daughter died.”
In order to contribute to the underlying tension emanating throughout the film’s early stages, both LaPaglia and Otto claim that they made a conscious choice to remain a little distant from Bateman, Wilson and the girls on set. “I didn’t mind the idea that they didn’t really get to know me, because their whole thing is that they’re making up all these fantasies about who my character is, so I thought it was good to let them keep their distance from me,” stated Otto. “I made the same decision [as Miranda] that I would not be friendly or get close to them on the set. I wanted them to be a little bit in fear and not totally get this guy.”
And during filming, Otto and LaPaglia were pleasantly surprised to find that youngsters Bateman (who spent several weeks practicing walking with a cane in order to capture the effects that polio would have on one’s movement) and Wilson were just as focused on and committed to their roles as their adult counterparts. Bateman and Wilson, at ages 15 and 11 respectively, shoulder the emotional gravity of the film with an elegance far beyond their years.
“With Talitha and Lulu, it’s like sitting next to seasoned veterans,” said LaPaglia with a smile. “They’ve got the whole thing down. They’re very sophisticated young girls.”
“There was an extensive casting process to find the best girls, and I really think we managed to find the best ones,” added Sandberg. “Talitha, Lulu and all these girls were such professionals and so good at it. It makes you automatically feel so sympathetic to these poor kids in this horror movie.”
Overall, Sandberg was thrilled with the levels of professionalism and talent demonstrated by the entire cast. “I’m so fortunate to be able to work with these professionals who make my job as a director so easy and make me look like I know what I’m doing because they give me such great performances,” professed Sandberg. “It makes my job so much easier when I don’t have to worry about dragging a performance out of anyone and all I have to worry about is the technical aspect.”
Indeed, from a technical standpoint, Sandberg had several creative choices to make; as the occurrences within and around the house shift from odd to frightening, it becomes clear that the doll that belonged to the late Annabelle has been possessed by a demon. And this demon is determined to inhabit the soul of one of the orphans. Building toward this ultimate showdown between the demon and the people in the house required Sandberg to maintain a balance between showing vs. implying.
“It is a balance, because often, the creak down the dark hallway can be scarier than what you see, because that could be anything and you have to make up your mind,” assesses Sandberg. “But at the same time, you have to show a little bit. You want to keep it a little in the shadows, but you want to give people glimpses as well.”
And it’s a balance that critics and audiences alike are lauding Sandberg for striking deftly. “When a horror movie is more about the psychological aspects — the creek of the door, etc. — as opposed to the blood, guts and horror, I think it’s a more challenging way to tell a horror film, and really raises the bar for the horror genre,” say LaPaglia of his director’s style.
According to Sandberg, the opportunity to shoot “Annabelle: Creation” with the refreshingly classic tone established by the previous “Conjuring” films was one that he relished. “The world of ‘The Conjuring’ has such a classic horror feel to it, which inspired me to shoot it in a more classic way,” he explained. It was fun to find the opportunities where we could do longer takes, and block it and stage it in different ways.”
Sandberg also acknowledged that the film being a period piece presented him intrinsically with additional exciting creative opportunities. “There’s something about period movies, making films that take place in the past, that lends itself really well to horror movies,” he said. “If you go through an antique store and look at really old photos of people, there’s something inherently creepy about it.”
The opportunity to play a character who possesses purity and unshakeable faith was an exciting and important one for Sigman, whose natural beauty have often led to her being cast as sexy characters, such as in the James Bond movie “Spectre.”
“She’s a spiritual warrior fighting evil in her own way, a spiritual way,” said Sigman of Sister Charlotte. “She’s not doing the ‘Wonder Woman’ fights obviously, but she is in a spiritual sense, which is pretty awesome. Because for me, as someone who believes in God and good and evil, it’s very important to have a spiritual side of it.”
While the final scene of “Annabelle: Creation” (which is rated R) and a post-credits bonus scene will be particularly satisfying for fans of prior “Conjuring” entries, the film is an outstanding showcase of the horror genre that, as Sandberg expressed, can stand alone and that anyone can enjoy.