Written by: Gary Dauberman, James Wan (story)
Directed by: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Madison Iseman, Mckenna Grace, and Katie Sarife
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"That's what you think."
"That's what you think."
The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has spawned a handful of imitators—or would-be imitators anyway. Several studios (including Marvel’s chief rival, DC) have practically tripped over themselves in a rushed effort to create their own interlocking universes, some of which never saw the light of day beyond a now infamous photo shoot and logo. Somewhat ironically, however, DC’s parent company, WB, has spawned the second most successful cinematic universe with The Conjuring. While each outing hasn’t been a resounding critical success, it’s established itself as the decade’s preeminent horror series, thanks in large part to Annabelle, who emerged as the franchise’s mascot and star of her own spin-off series.
With Annabelle Comes Home, the mascot effectively laps the main franchise with her third—and possibly best—solo outing, albeit one that feels kind of like The Conjuring 2.5. Where previous spin-offs accounted for her creation and built upon the mythology first glimpsed in the original Conjuring, this one is more of a stopgap, or maybe even an excuse to exploit Annabelle’s popularity in order to raise hell. It might sound a bit gauche or like a bit of a cheat, but it delivers exactly what the title promises: the absolute mayhem that ensues when you place a haunted doll in a room with other cursed objects. What Annabelle Comes Home might lack in mythology or universe building, it makes up for with a spirited sense of fun, all while honoring the franchise’s commitment to sharp, affecting character work. Essentially, this is what happens when James Wan and company just let loose and rummage around in the killer sandbox they’ve crafted.
After treating viewers to that famous Conjuring prologue again, Comes Home literally shows what happened just afterwards: with the demonic doll now safe in their custody, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) make the long trek back to their Connecticut home. Before they arrive, however, their car breaks down right next to the spookiest, most fog-drenched cemetery imaginable. Lorraine quickly senses spirits rising from their graves, seemingly summoned by Annabelle herself, leading the medium to suspect the doll must be a conduit for other supernatural entities lurking beyond the grave. Surviving this ordeal inspires the Warrens to take no chances once they finally bring the doll home: not only does a priest bless the room, but the couple also stuffs Annabelle into her own glass case, affixed with a firm warning that she isn’t to be removed.
But all the precaution in the world can’t stop Daniela (Katie Sarife) from snooping around the place when she catches wind that her friend Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) babysits the Warrens’ daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace). Despite Mary Ellen’s protests (not to mention Judy’s ominous warnings), Daniela can’t help herself: she swiftly descends to the cellar, where she proceeds to fiddle with everything, including Annabelle. Doing so unleashes all of the bad, pent-up mojo lurking in the Warrens’ home, resulting in the sleepover from hell when numerous goblins, ghosts, and other creatures terrorize the girls.
What ensues is something like The Conjuring by way of Waxwork. It’s almost like everyone involved realized the Warrens have a deep log of case files, many of which might not be enough to carry an entire movie, so they’ve tossed a bunch of them into one concentrated burst here. You could almost imagine this being a nice little anthology, perhaps with the Warrens introducing each case; instead, they’re around as bookends here, leaving the girls to rummage through the demonologists’ files to catch the audience up to speed on the primary ghouls: The Ferryman, a blood-spattered bride, a cursed samurai, and even the Southend werewolf.
Obviously, Annabelle Comes Home moves with a bit more of a breathless pace than previous Conjuring entries. Where these films have largely emphasized an intense, slow burn build-up to a crescendo of scares, this one peppers several jumps and jolts throughout. You know I’m going to break out this obvious comparison, so let’s just get it out of the way: Comes Home is like a haunted house attraction that flings animatronic goblins and ghosts from all directions, right down to the candy-colored lighting.
Gary Dauberman—who’s been around this franchise as a writer and producer since the first Annabelle –makes an impressive directorial debut here, mostly because he’s not just doing a cut-rate Wan imitation. Sure, he shares some of Wan’s playfulness with the camera (he’s keenly aware of the audience’s expectations in terms of framing), but his film has a more rambunctious, up-all-night energy than its predecessors. If previous Conjuring films carefully parceled out its treats, then this one is all about grabbing entire handfuls of candy and stuffing them into your face. From that early, ethereally moonlit cemetery scene through the riotous haunting of the Warren house, Comes Home aims to thrill with a deep assortment of sights and sounds.
Like a child with an imagination unlocked by a sugar rush, Dauberman orchestrates one scare after the other and leaves no stone uncursed: that seemingly innocuous board game the girls play? Haunted. The bizarre TV in the Warrens’ collection? Apparently capable of peering through time itself. A projector in the Warrens’s office? Perfectly capable of performing a makeshift exorcism, if need be. I love this movie in a different way than I love the two Conjuring films: it’s not that those films aren’t entertaining, but they do carry a certain heaviness and intensity that Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t quite go for. It comes off as a little bit more for a younger crowd, so much so that I could see it becoming a sleepover staple for the next generation: it’s just macabre and fucked-up enough to be scary, but not so much so that it wouldn’t be perfectly suitable for a YA crowd graduating up from the likes of Goosebumps (or whatever the Monster Kids are reading these days).
Even in his rush to conjure up scares at a breakneck pace, Dauberman doesn’t forget that this franchise has often thrived on a human element. It’s a series that mostly invests in its characters, and this entry is no different, even if you’re initially convinced to the contrary when Daniela seems like a typical cliché horror character: the idiot that can’t leave well enough alone and summons a demonic spirit. However, it turns out she’s actually trying to contact her father, who recently died in a car accident for which she seems responsible.
Combine this with poor Judy’s status as the school weirdo who can’t get anyone to attend her birthday party and Mary Ellen’s exceedingly wholesome, kind demeanor, and you’ve got a nice trio fighting for some unexpected—and widely varied—stakes. Daniela’s seeking forgiveness from the beyond, Judy’s just hoping someone will show up for her birthday, and Mary Ellen’s hoping to survive long enough to go out with the nice boy across the street (nicknamed “Bob’s Got Balls”) who finds himself terrorized by a werewolf for the entire night. Other supporting players—like a quirky pizza guy (Bill Kottkamp)—provide just enough levity, while Wilson and Farmiga bring the trademark warmth and sincerity that’s defined their turns as the Warrens, giving this spin-off a whiff of the emotional and thematic heft of the proper Conjuring outings.
Otherwise, however, Annabelle Comes Home stands apart quite well, and it does so at the right time. Just when it looked like this franchise might be growing a little stale, this entry breaks the mold in an exciting way. In an interesting turn of events, The Conjuring franchise has done something even Marvel Studios hasn’t been able to pull off by crafting a nice little standalone, or something like an annual or giant-size issue: unburdened by continuity and mythology building, it’s free to tell a nice, sweet little side story that’s full of funhouse freakout vibe and autumnal touches. Perhaps best of all, Annabelle Comes Home arrives like a brisk October breeze right in the middle of the summer, reminding us what lurks just around the corner of all this oppressive heat and humidity. Here’s hoping it, er, comes home on video just in time for this Halloween season, where it will surely thrive even more in its natural habitat.
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