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Latest ‘Conjuring’ prequel ‘Annabelle: Creation’ thrills and terrifies in equal measure

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"Annabelle: Creation," the fourth installment in the "Conjuring" film series, opens in theaters Aug. 11. (Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

If you’re a fan of “The Conjuring” movie franchise, you may have seen the billboards and posters around town for “Annabelle: Creation,” the series’ fourth and latest installment, and thought to yourself, “Wait ... wasn’t the previous ‘Annabelle’ movie (2014) a prequel about the Annabelle doll? How do you add to that story?” And if you had that question, you weren’t alone: “Annabelle: Creation” director David Sandberg had the very same concern when he was first approached about directing the project after wrapping production on his highly successful film “Lights Out.”

“I’ve been a fan of ‘The Conjuring’ franchise since I saw the first ‘Conjuring,’ but 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 at a recent press junket for the new film. Shortly after reading the script, however, he realized that there was indeed more to tell, and there was the potential to do so in a satisfying way that could please both devoted fans of the franchise and newcomers alike.

“It has this whole origin story with these new characters and a new story I could make my own,” he said. “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 the Annabelle story begins in the 1940s and focuses on kindhearted dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), his loving wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), and their adorable young daughter Annabelle. They’re a Rockwellian depiction of a happy American family and all seems 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.

At first, the spacious, accommodating house seems heaven-sent to Sister Charlotte and the girls. But the more they explore the house and surrounding property, the more they come to realize that their new home is just the opposite — it’s possessed by a demon inhabiting a porcelain doll that belonged to the late Annabelle.

“Annabelle: Creation” serves as a stellar showcase for director Sandberg’s undeniable proclivity for the horror genre. No, this film doesn’t have the smarts of writer/director Jordan Peele’s highly ambitious horror/political satire “Get Out” from earlier this year. But the extent to which Sandberg manages to scare you with what you don’t see — the creaking door, the shadow in the mirror, etc. — makes this film feel like an upper echelon horror film in its own right.

As the situation worsens at the house as the film progresses, the script does, admittedly, ask the audience to take a few illogical leaps. (“Why don’t they just leave the house?” more cynical audience members might ask.) But whatever minor plot holes may arise, Sandberg’s masterful work behind the camera remains consistent from start to finish, as do the outstanding performances delivered by the cast he’s assembled on camera.

LaPaglia and Otto are as dependable as ever, and Sigman smartly plays Sister Charlotte with refreshingly genuine compassion that never sinks into holier-than-thou. But the show belongs to youngsters Bateman (15 years old) and Wilson (11), who 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,” described LaPaglia with a smile at the junket. “They’ve got the whole thing down.”

Although “Conjuring” enthusiasts will be better able to appreciate “Annabelle: Creation” (which is rated R) — particularly the film’s cliffhanger ending and post-credits bonus scene — Sandberg has certainly achieved his wish of creating a film that serves not only as a viable addition to the successful film franchise, but also as a standalone piece that will thrill both devoted fans and newcomers … and will have everyone grabbing the person next to them in fear.

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