Conventional wisdom in the movie industry says that young women make or break a horror film's audience. Young men can be relied upon to turn out for scary movies, but instead of hoping they'll drag dates along, studios have gotten more proactive in developing relatable characters for women rather than relegating them to the pure-victim status of "scream queens." This feminine outreach is quite apparent in "Annabelle: Creation."
Demon-possessed doll Annabelle first appeared in the 2013 horror film "The Conjuring," then got her own titular spinoff film a year later. To "flesh out" an origin story -- one blessedly free of "this really happened, we swear!" nonsense -- the prequel "Annabelle: Creation" backs up a dozen years to the mid-1950s (and a dozen years before that for its prologue). Having "nowhere else to go," six orphan girls accompany Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman of "Narcos") to a remote, rambling farmhouse. Their hosts: retired dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his invalid wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), who lost their daughter in a tragic accident and have been haunted, figuratively or literally, ever since.
When leg-braced Little Orphan Janice (Talitha Bateman) discovers big ol' creepy doll Annabelle, the human girl unleashes a supernatural horror the Mullinses have attempted to bless away and board up. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman ("Annabelle") seems afraid to commit to the Mullinses being a few sandwiches short of a picnic, lest the grieving parents come off as unsympathetic. This choice makes the premise absurdly contrived: We're never convinced that it makes any sense to have kept the Annabelle doll intact on their property, much less that they would take on a gaggle of orphan girls while showing little if any parental pull toward them.
Impractical psychology aside, Dauberman gives talented Swedish-born horror director David F. Sandberg ("Lights Out") a highly practical playground for chills and spills: the tinkling bell of largely unseen Esther; malfunctioning household equipment like a dumbwaiter and a chair lift; a vinyl record of "You Are My Sunshine;" a conspicuously large well; a barn with a scarecrow; and more deep, dark shadows than you can shake a failing flashlight at. The farmhouse proves to be Sandberg's wheelhouse, and he's skilled enough to make something intermittently gripping of the haunted-house boilerplate.
Unsettlingly lively dolls have been a horror staple dating back at least as far as "Twilight Zone" episodes like "The After Hours," "The Dummy" and "Living Doll." Indeed, "Annabelle: Creation" gets good mileage from its throwback feel: the period setting and an emphasis on girls' games, from hide-and-seek to the slumber-party standard of ghost stories by flashlight under a sheet. In and of themselves, the trappings of "The Conjuring" series (joint-crunching contortions, say, evil-spirit peekaboo, and an unsubtle cross motif) have gotten awfully old, and even after a patient buildup, they wear out their welcome ahead of schedule. On paper, "Annabelle: Creation" lays out lazy character development and logic, but on screen, it gets the job done more often than not as an unpretentious talk-back-to-the-screen audience picture.