Annabelle Comes Home offers enough thrills, jolts, and even heartfelt storytelling to compensate for the lack of depth to its horror elements.
Over the course of six years, The Conjuring franchise has taken real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren's cases and used them as the springboard for a shared cinematic universe of spinoffs, sequels, and/or prequels that are the movie equivalents of haunted house amusement park rides. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either, as this month's installment, Annabelle Comes Home, demonstrates. Gone are any attempts at pseudo-realism; instead, the new Conjuring film has fun playing around in its spooky sandbox, and avoids taking itself too seriously. Annabelle Comes Home offers enough thrills, jolts, and even heartfelt storytelling to compensate for the lack of depth to its horror elements.
Unlike the other Annabelle movies, the new spinoff is a mid-quel that picks up right after the prologue to the original Conjuring. After helping some nursing students who're being terrorized by the Annabelle doll, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) take the toy to the cursed artifacts room in their home for safe-keeping. Even there, though, the Warrens discover that Annabelle's powerful enough to awaken the evil spirits lying dormant in their "museum", and place her inside a container of sacred glass in order to keep her influence in-check. Thankfully, their ten-year old daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) and her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) know to steer clear of the room while the Warrens are away on business one Friday night. However, when Mary Ellen's friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) inadvertently sets Annabelle loose, it unleashes all manner of wicked specters, ghouls, and demons upon the three young women.
Prolific horror genre writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle 1 & 2, IT, The Nun) gets to cut his teeth as a director on Annabelle Comes Home, drawing from a story that he cowrote with The Conjuring Universe's primary architect, James Wan. The film has the same fundamental problem as all mid-quels - namely, it's a little inconsequential to the franchise's overarching narrative - but it also fleshes Judy out in important ways and paves the way for her to play a larger role in future Conjuring films. Like Dauberman's other horror movie scripts, his Annabelle Comes Home screenplay deals with the theme of grieving and how emotional trauma or isolation can make people susceptible to being preyed on by exterior forces (in this case, of course, literal demons). It doesn't have much in the way of new insight to offer on this topic following the previous Conjuring films, but it's a theme that continues to resonate emotionally here.
The movie's premise, which is basically Night(mare) at the Museum, is a little more inventive by comparison. This is the first Conjuring film that's taken place over the course of a single night, and its pacing is all the steadier for it. It also carries over the series' tradition of being quietly empowering in its portrayal of women by featuring three engaging female leads, as compellingly brought to life by Grace, Sarife, and Iseman. Daniela and Judy have far more substantial arcs than Mary Ellen, but the trio's friendship is touching and it's easy to cheer them on as they battle the dangerous creatures that've been waiting to escape the Warrens' artifacts room. The only other character with significant screen time here is Mary Ellen's adorkable crush Bob (Michael Cimino), who provides some welcome comic relief in his scenes. And of course, Wilson and Farmiga are once again great as Ed and Lorraine, even in their small role here.
By this point, though, audiences knows whether The Conjuring's brand of horror (lots of jump scares combined with eerie set design) is their thing or not. Annabelle Comes Home isn't likely to change their minds either, especially since the movie leans into the franchise's hammier tendencies by turning the Warrens' home into a carnival-like funhouse of frights, complete with fog and spooks that range from haunted wedding dresses to future-predicting TV sets. That said, Dauberman does a fine job of staging the film's action and finding different ways for monsters to leap out at the camera, with more than a little assistance from Jennifer Spence's creepy production design and DP Michael Burgess' fluid camerawork. His sense of craftsmanship obviously isn't on the same level as Wan's right out the gate, but Dauberman fares perfectly well for a first-time helmer.
With seven entries under its belt at this stage (including The Curse of La Llorona, which itself is largely standalone), The Conjuring franchise seems to have found its groove as a collection of similar, but not identical, supernatural horror thrill rides. Annabelle Comes Home certainly doesn't break the mold in that respect, but it adds enough fresh ingredients to the mix to avoid feeling stale and give it more substance than the weaker Conjuring spinoffs before it. Wan and Dauberman would probably be better off leaving Annabelle in her glass box after this (while they're still mostly ahead), but the movie introduces plenty of other ghouls and haunted objects that could fill her spot in a future installment. And so long as viewers continue to enjoy these films, there's little reason to doubt that the other dangerous items in the Warrens' museum will return to wreak havoc once again.
Annabelle Comes Home is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 106 minutes long and is rated R for horror violence and terror.
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- Annabelle Comes Home (2019) release date: Jun 26, 2019