The Conjuring Universe has provided several great films in its six-film library so far. While the series is meant to focus mostly on the Warrens and their famous cases one specific case has captured the interest of moviegoers everywhere, the case of Annabelle. The famously haunted doll was featured in “The Conjuring” before getting her own series within the Conjuring Universe. She has become somewhat of the demonic face of the franchise so it’s no surprise she earned her own trilogy with the third movie, “Annabelle Comes Home”, debuting last night. The seventh film in the Conjuring Universe, “Annabelle Comes Home” serves as the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, who also wrote all three “Annabelle” movies as well as “The Nun” and the 2017 adaptation of “It” so it’s safe to say the doll’s newest feature was in promising hands. But the previous “Annabelle” movies have been hit or miss. The first was a by-the-books horror offering while “Annabelle: Creation” was one of the greatest horror movies of 2017. So, is “Annabelle Comes Home” one more step in the right direction or is it a step backwards to the mediocrity of the first movie in the trilogy? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Annabelle Comes Home”.
“Annabelle Comes Home” takes place within a year after the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) retrieve the haunted doll. The Warren’s daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace), who has inherited her mother’s clairvoyance, finds it tough to fit in with anyone at school and instead bonds with her older babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) who has been hired to watch Judy while the Warrens are away. Mary Ellen invites her friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) over to help celebrate Judy’s birthday. Daniela acts on her curiosity and discovers the Warren’s famous room of haunted objects eventually happening across Annabelle. Seeking to reconnect with a lost loved one, Daniela interacts with the doll and forgets to lock it up leading the doll to affect the rest of the haunted items and draw spirits and demons to the home. Judy, Mary Ellen, and Daniela soon find themselves face to face with all kinds of manifestations of evil who set their sights on Judy seeking to offer her soul to the Annabelle doll.
Annabelle for me has always been a fun and intriguing addition to the horror genre. Her real-world roots have long intrigued me and, like many, it’s her inclusion in “The Conjuring” that really made me interested in the Warrens and their cases. When she got her own movie I was very interested but the final product wasn’t what I hoped. “Annabelle: Creation” was a huge improvement. This third film falls somewhere in the middle, although it’s more good than bad in my opinion. “Annabelle Comes Home” serves as a fun way to tie the doll back into the core “Conjuring” story as the first two explored her origins before she made her way to the Warren’s famous collection. “Annabelle Comes Home” shows the doll’s influence much more than past movies, solidifying her as more of a conduit and beacon than an actual moving doll. We know what she is and we know how she was created, but now we get to see how dangerous she can be. It might take a while for the doll to be let loose but once she is we get to see the Warren’s home play host to all kinds of ghosts and demons to target the home.
Annabelle may be the main villain but really we get to see a whole slew of fun and interesting horrors manifest themselves thanks to the doll. It’s almost like a greatest hits for a cast of genre icons we have yet to meet. An evil bride, a deadly suit of armor, a television that predicts the immediate future…these are all cool ideas that probably deserve their own films but their inclusion does more than just tease possible spinoff ideas for the franchise. They add to the creepy nature of Annabelle because she’s the leader, the cause of all of it. She’s the one influencing all of these items. In this way “Annabelle Comes Home” ups the ante by creating the perfect haunted house, the home of the Warrens where countless spooky items containing all sorts of evil entities get to show off their abilities thanks to the influence of the most dangerous of them all. And don’t even get me started on the Ferryman who is by far the best addition to the Conjuring Universe from this film. He really needs his own spinoff.
Keeping the action contained within the home also proves to be effective, giving us that old school haunted house feel with some fun atmosphere and new elements mixed in for spice. Also, the pacing was pretty fun as there’s a slow burn at the start that leads into Annabelle’s release before all hell breaks loose and we feel as trapped in the action as the small cast. We have time to get invested in the characters while also being given plenty of time to understand the threat that lies ahead. Once the action does kick into high gear I was on the edge of my seat. While not all the scares are original and there’s no blood or gore in this picture, the use of patient shooting and silence to prepare the audience for scares is often effective. Like its predecessor “Annabelle: Creation”, “Annabelle Comes Home” made me jump out of my seat numerous times and at one point even had me white knuckling my armrests worried about what was coming next. There are a lot of legitimately jump-worthy scares in this flick. Even the clichés seem to work well except for one REALLY irritating trick that “Annabelle Comes Home” utilizes way too often.
This movie has WAY too many fake-out scares to point of extreme annoyance. Time and time again the audience is thrown into moments meant to create tension and make them think they’re about to be scared until ultimately nothing happens. This tactic is usually meant as a way to warm you up for the frights to come. It got to a point where I legitimately had to hold back from yelling at the screen to stop with the nonsense and bring on the real scares. Thankfully these really are simply warmups for what’s to come later in the movie as the desired effect of subverting viewer expectations does work to some extent. It prepares us not to trust our own instincts and warns that we may never know when something will be scary or normal. It’s just overused is all. I understand that this is director Gary Dauberman’s first film, but it’s not his first writing credit and adding in so many fake-out feels like a crutch he deliberately chose to lean on as a filmmaker to try and provide some cheap moments of discomfort without any real content.
The blending of tones in this film isn’t always very fluid either although it’s not nearly as bad as other genre pieces. There are some fun moments of levity that help break up the tension and get the audience reset for the next scary moment. The problem here though is that it feels contradictory to the rest of the Conjuring Universe. The other six films did offer some moments to help viewers settle down in between frights and keep the stories on more level ground, but rarely if ever has the series veered into comedy territory like it does in “Annabelle Comes Home”. Usually this wouldn’t be a bad idea, changing up the tone to help “Annabelle Comes Home” stand out. While it certainly accomplishes that purpose, many cinematic universes manage to blend different stories with different identities but the Conjuring Universe has long established itself as a darker and more grounded franchise. Thus “Annabelle Comes Home” feels like both a standout film with its own personality and an obvious attempt to try and add something fresh to a series that was doing just fine. In one way this does create diversity in this franchise’s filmography, but in another it shows a clear fear that the formula established through six previous films may be getting stale. Who knows, this might actually lead to great things in the future if the Conjuring Universe truly wants to experiment, but for now the humor feels more forced to keep things fresh rather than an inspired choice.
But to bring things back around to the more positive aspects of the movie I did enjoy that it wasn’t just a film about teenagers snooping around in the Warren’s collection. There’s an actual deep and tragic motivation behind Daniela choosing to mess with the forces of the paranormal and her releasing Annabelle comes off as a genuine mistake of ignorance. Mary Ellen is also a fun and relatable character as a high schooler just doing her job and really bond with the young girl she babysits. I liked these ladies. I felt like I could understand them. Their fears and insecurities in the house felt very human and sincere and it was delightful seeing them try to survive the night in a house full of some of the most terrifying haunted objects imaginable. Their story arcs help drive home the deeper themes of closure and the dangers of meddling with powers one may not fully understand. Even Judy Warren gets some fun development as she’s finally given personality. Assuming the adult Warrens won’t be the center of attention forever, Judy is set up to be a very capable successor to her parents and it’s fun to see a new Warren get some practice in fighting off the paranormal. Props to Madison Iseman, Mckenna Grace and Katie Sarife for rising to the occasion as most of this movie is squarely on their shoulders and they make the very best of that opportunity with what they’re given.
“Annabelle Comes Home” is imperfect, but I actually quite enjoyed it. Very few films these days get the bragging rights of having made me jump not once but multiple times during my viewing. Like “Annabelle: Creation” before it, “Annabelle Comes Home” reminded me how much fun a movie simply built to scare can be. It has its flaws especially in terms of its tone and its dreadful overuse of the fake-out scare, but for a directorial debut from the guy behind both previous “Annabelle” films, it’s not a bad product. It has some genuine heart behind its characters and some really creepy new additions to the Conjuring mythos (seriously Warner Bros. get on that Ferryman spinoff). Is it better than its predecessor? I’m not so sure. I don’t think it was necessarily an improvement, but I’d say it’s on par at worst and definitely works to advance Annabelle’s story rather than sticking to the simple convention we’ve come to expect from previous installments. “Annabelle Comes Home” is proof that there’s still plenty of room left in cinema for a good old fashion haunted house story and that The Conjuring Universe still has plenty to offer as it continues to expand.