Fear not, franchise-phobes. It’s unnecessary to prep for the sneakily effective “Annabelle: Creation” by first biting your nails through James Wan’s retro fright-fest “The Conjuring” (2013), then massaging your temples over John R. Leonetti’s abysmal “Annabelle” (2014).
Though “Creation” marks the third on-screen appearance of everyone’s favorite demonically possessed doll, the movie is actually something of a prequel to a prequel, taking place a decade before the previous installment. Could we call it a proquelogue? Probably. Should we? Merriam-Webster says probably not.
Nevertheless, the film affixes yet another horrific history to its wicked, wooden adversary (the eye-roller of a tagline reads “You don’t know the real story,” as if that’s the viewer’s fault at this point), positing that the doll originally belonged to the daughter of a kindly toymaker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto), who reside in a remote California farmhouse.
Locked away in the wake of the girl’s tragic death, the doll re-emerges 12 years later, just after the still grief-stricken couple take in six girls from a Catholic orphanage, along with their devout guardian (Stephanie Sigman). Two young’uns in particular — fearful Janice (Talitha Bateman), whose battle with polio has left her in a leg brace, and the sunny Linda (Lulu Wilson), whose naivete keeps her isolated from the older girls — find themselves drawn toward the daughter’s bedroom, where a demonic presence lies in wait, with violent intent.
On paper, staging the “Annabelle” series in reverse sounds like the same recipe for disaster that’s made Fox’s “X-Men” franchise a continuity mess. So credit returning “Annabelle” writer Gary Dauberman and newly drafted director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) with delivering what’s instead a tense and terrifying genre workout, the kind of old-school chiller that starts slow, patiently turning the screws and introducing a surplus of creepy set pieces (a creaky dumbwaiter here, a covered well there) before making potent use of each in a brutal, blood-curdling crescendo of a third act. Sandberg, an impish traditionalist inspired in equal measure by William Castle (“House on Haunted Hill”) and John Carpenter (“Halloween”), casts his camera deep into shadows that seem to swell with the horrors they hide. Here, he forces uncertain audiences to lean into the dark, sometimes (but, crucially, not always) springing a nasty surprise on them once there.
“Creation” owes much to last year’s “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” another better-than-expected prequel to a soulless studio cash-in: a period setting, a central trio of strong women, demonic possession, similar jump-scares, even the same lead actress (Wilson, whose matter-of-fact moxie here makes for an appealing inversion of her “Ouija” role). But then again, “Origin of Evil” borrowed enough from Sandberg’s original “Lights Out” short that it’s tempting to conclude any turnabout is fair play. And if some light deja vu is the price horror fans must pay for a mainstream offering this spine-tingling, most will still come away feeling spooked and satisfied.
★ ★ ★ ½
Directed by David F. Sandberg. Written by Gary Dauberman. Starring Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 109 minutes. R (horror violence and terror).