While we await the next chapter in the Conjuring series of horror films, Annabelle Comes Home is here to tide fans over until we can dive back into the supernatural adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren. This is the third film to star the haunted doll, after Annabelle (2014) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), in addition to being the latest spinoff, following The Nun (2018) and The Curse of La Llorona (2019).
EVIL IN A BOX
After a long day’s ghostbusting, professional demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) are on their way home. In their possession (heh) is Annabelle, a cursed doll that acts like an antenna for supernatural activity. They store Annabelle in their archive of unholy artifacts, behind lock and key in a glass case made from re-purposed church windows (helpfully labelled, “Positively do not open”).
When the Warrens are called away on a case, they leave their daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace, TV’s Designated Survivor), in the care of babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). With her parents’ exploits being featured in the local news, Judy finds it difficult to fit in, but makes fast friends with Mary Ellen’s classmate Daniela (Katie Sarife). However, what starts out as a quiet evening soon becomes a lot more interesting, as Danielle opens a certain glass case, inadvertently unleashing hell on the Warrens’ sleepy suburban home.
Conceived as a prequel to The Conjuring (2013), the first Annabelle film was somewhat of a bore for its reliance on repetitive jump scares, a shortcoming it shared with The Conjuring 2 (2016). The next film, Annabelle: Creation (a prequel to the prequel), was a successful return to the series’ roots, terrifying audiences with to its deep-rooted psychological horror approach. However, the next two spinoffs, The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona, devolved the (so-called) Conjuring Universe by doubling down on cheap jump scares and ponderous attempts at lore-building.
If The Conjuring is this franchise’s thoughtful premiere offering, Annabelle Comes Home is the unabashed summer blockbuster, and honestly, who would have thought the old girl had it in her? First-time director Gary Dauberman (who also wrote the film) avoids the mistakes of the previous films, opting for an approach that crosses a haunted house movie with a teen horror flick and, boy, it works. The pacing here can be likened to a carnival haunted house, with shocks, jumps, and breathing room timed for maximum effect.
HAUNTED HOUSE PARTY
Rarely using the same trick twice, Dauberman keeps the audience on edge with inventive set-ups that make the most of the relatively limited confines of the Warren home. Annabelle Comes Home may not necessarily add to the overall mythology, but the director displays a refreshingly solid handle on the genre, as well a sense of humor about upending audience expectations on multiple occasions.
GHOSTS AND GHOULS
Despite the title, the Annabelle doll neither returns to her home nor leads the charge against the story’s hapless teens. In fact, the doll takes a backseat here to the slew of ghouls that manage to escape the infamous artifact room. Some of these are creepy as hell, such as the Ferry Man, who seeks payment for bringing souls to the underworld, and seemingly has a bone to pick with Mary Ellen, while others are just hilarious (I’m looking at you, Feely Meely!). Unlike The Nun’s random nonsense, though, the spirits haunting the Warrens’ home adhere to a certain narrative logic, with each manifesting malevolence in its own unique way. Despite the influx of new spirits, the film never comes across as overstuffed, and one wouldn’t be opposed (or surprised) to seeing some of them get their own spinoffs in the future.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
The Warrens are absent for the majority of the runtime, yet their (non-)participation here is handled organically, leaving the heavy lifting to the film’s young star. Iseman is likeable as Mary Ellen, the typical girl-next-door who is more concerned with what her crush, Bob (a goofily-endearing Michael Cimino) thinks of her, than the machinations of a plastic hellraiser. Playing Ellen’s friend, Daniela, on the other hand, Sarife has the tougher job, needing to make the audience empathize with her boneheaded decision to ignore the Warrens’ many (literal) warning signs, and she largely succeeds – she’s still an idiot, but not to the point of being unsympathetic. Together with Judy (who is developing powers akin to her mother’s), the four will need to survive everything Annabelle’s new playmates can throw at them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Despite also being the guy who wrote Annabelle and The Nun, first-time director Gary Dauberman levels up his game to deliver a refreshing entry in the Conjuring Universe. Forget the series’ previous attempts at half-assed mythology and cheap jump scares; This is a great time at the movies, an unpretentious serving of scares that’s sure to satisfy fans and newcomers alike. Get ready to scream.
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