Sure, the doll is creepy, but don’t expect much more from this prequel to 2014’s ‘Conjuring’-spinoff ‘Annabelle’

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Creepy dolls, spooky kids and haunted houses have taken over the horror genre. What was once a playground for masked psychos cutting up oversexed teenagers in new and inventive ways has become a collection of long, darkened hallways with something going bump at the far end of them. Horror has become domesticated. It’s enough to make you wonder: where have all the slashers gone?

“Annabelle: Creation” falls in line with the modern horror wave. It’s the fourth film in “The Conjuring” series — and the second spinoff to focus on Annabelle, a freaky-looking doll that looks like the Victorian-era cousin of “Child’s Play’s” Chucky — and it has all the elements of a contemporary horror hit, including the creepy doll, the spooky (or spooked out) kids and the house that’s too big not to be scary at night.

If only it were, you know, scarier. “Annabelle: Creation” has shrieks and jump scares, but never feels genuinely frightening. Of course a nightmare funhouse doll is going to be disturbing when sitting in the shadows and staring dead at the camera, that’s a given. But screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) don’t do enough to expand on the history of Annabelle or dive any deeper than the doll’s surface-level, inherent creepiness. What you see is what you get.

The film opens with 1940s dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) putting the finishing touches on his frightmare toy. When his daughter is unexpectedly killed by an oncoming car, Mullins and his wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), go into isolation, but 12 years later they decide to open their home to a handful of orphans and a live-in nun. There’s only one rule: Don’t go in the daughter’s old room. Seems fair enough.

Except they go in the room, because of course they do. And that’s when all the bad stuff starts happening, mostly involving the doll and the dead daughter’s spirit. The parents realized there was something up with that insane looking doll, so they banished it forever, never to be seen again, right there in the closet of their daughter’s room.

Not by driving to the ocean and tossing it in, burying it out back or even tossing it in the well on their property. Nope. The closet should be fine. They even propped her up in her own rocking chair. How hospitable of them. Imagine their surprise when things begin to go awry.

The clumsy script has difficulty establishing the rules of what the doll and the daughter can do, so you’re never really sure of what the characters are up against. At one point she’s powerful enough to possess a character, lift her high into the air and slam her to the ground; at another time she’s making verbal demands for a character’s soul. What’s going on here?

Sandberg, for his part, keeps viewers on their toes; he wants them to explore the dark spaces he frames on screen, and he toys with scares, teasing out anti-scares as he keeps the audience off balance. He’s like a DJ stretching out the big drop: you know it’s coming, you just don’t know when. But the surprises are ultimately few, save for just enough gore to push the film to a barely earned R-rating.

The puppet master here is producer James Wan, the creative force behind the “Conjuring” and “Insidious” franchises, as well as one of the originators of the “Saw” film series. “Saw” helped introduce the torture porn subgenre of horror, but Wan has scaled back and made a mint dealing with demonic possession of houses, children and dolls.

It’s where we’re at today, as well as for the foreseeable future: there’s a new “Insidious” movie due out next year, and there are a pair of “Conjuring” spinoffs on deck. The slashers, it seems, will have to continue to wait for their turn.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Annabelle: Creation’

GRADE: C

Rated R for horror violence and terror

Running time: 109 minutes

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