Annabelle Comes Home
The third film in the Annabelle saga is the best one yet.
There's an incredibly cynical, albeit accurate, way of looking at Annabelle Comes Home, which marks the eighth film in the Conjuring Cinematic Universe in the past six years. A second sequel to a spin-off from 2013's The Conjuring, this horror flick once again draws upon the lives and work of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). As you can tell from the film's title, it also features the creepy doll called Annabelle, which is either a possessed plaything or a beacon for other demonic spirits, depending on narrative requirements in any given picture. This time, however, the franchise delves further into the Warrens' treasure trove of cursed and occult trinkets. There are so many other spooky and unnerving items that they literally fill a heavily padlocked room. Spying everything from jinxed samurai armour to haunted board games to prowling hellhounds, it's easy to glean what the saga's producers, including Australian filmmaker James Wan, are thinking — more eerie objects, more potential movies.
New films about soul-collecting ferrymen and demented bridal dresses will likely eventuate (although, if the latter does, it'll have big shoes to fill following the fantastic, completely unrelated British movie In Fabric). That's just how the entertainment business works. Thankfully, as Annabelle Comes Home unleashes a bedevilled toy box worth of terrifying forces, it livens up the franchise's familiar template, has ample fun with the haunted house concept, and even throws in some goofy teen movie-style antics as well. The Annabelle series hasn't been great so far, so this mightn't sound like the biggest compliment, but Annabelle Comes Home is its best instalment yet. In a saga that also includes the lacklustre The Nun and The Curse of the Weeping Woman, it's also the best Conjuring Universe flick since the movie that started it all.
Written and directed by Gary Dauberman — who has penned four Conjuring Universe films now, as well as 2017's It and its forthcoming sequel — Annabelle Comes Home sticks to its simple premise. After being involved in a number of violent incidents, the damned dolly is brought to the Warrens' suburban Connecticut house. Not only is it locked in their artefacts room, but it's sealed in a glass case emblazoned with multiple warnings of the "do not open" kind. And there Annabelle sits, until Ed and Lorraine go away overnight on a case, leaving their quiet, pre-teen daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) at home. Friendly, sensible babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) knows better than to snoop, touch things she shouldn't or to even invite the cute boy from across the street (Michael Cimino) over. Of course, her curious pal Daniela (Katie Sarife) doesn't share the same mindset.
As a screenwriter, Dauberman's past scripts have relied heavily on formula. That doesn't substantially change in his directorial debut, however he does an impressive job of making Annabelle Comes Home seem otherwise. Two sleight-of-hand tactics drive this bump- and jump-fuelled film, and they're both effective. Firstly, viewers are aware that this is more grist for the franchise mill, and that more movies will come — at this rate, the Conjuring series will probably haunt us for so long, it'll become its own hair-raising legend. But this latest chapter has such a great time careening between its multiple spine-tingling entities that nothing ever feels overly stock-standard, other than the titular doll (and she plays a smaller part than might be expected). Secondly, audiences have experienced ominous shadows, unsettling creaks and unexpected knocks at the door before, especially in this horror saga, and yet variety is once again key. Knowing that every sinister noise and strange occurrence is caused by the same disturbing toy again and again? Tired. Being kept guessing about which demonic object will pop up at any given moment? That's not only more thrilling, but it gives the movie more range to mix up its chilling imagery.
Courtesy of hazy lighting and a moody atmosphere, Annabelle Comes Home nails the creepy tone anyway, with cinematographer Michael Burgess (The Curse of the Weeping Woman) making the most of the movie's main location. If trapping a few unsupervised kids in a house while otherworldly forces wreak havoc sounds like classic 80s territory, that's the vibe the picture goes for, even though it's set in the 70s. In a welcome improvement, the teen focus also shakes up the story beats, exploring threads about bullying, grief and young love — instead of just waiting for more spooks and scares, and padding them out with an uneasy tone. The film's characters also feel less like mere narrative pawns as a result. They still make stupid decisions, including ignoring all of those locks and "keep out" signs, but they're given flesh to jump out of.
Overall, it's enough to make horror buffs wish that both the broader franchise and the now three-film Annabelle series had tried a few different tricks earlier. And although this is entirely the point, it's enough to make viewers look forward to possible new spinoffs, too. As the long-running Marvel Cinematic Universe continually demonstrates, these episodic, intertwined properties can (and probably will) keep going on forever. But as long as every single chapter isn't a carbon copy of the last, just with a new figure its centre, they can still surprise and entertain. Finally, Annabelle Comes Home shows that idea can be done well, rather than routinely, in the Conjuring Universe.
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