Annabelle Comes Home is the tamest of the cash cow Conjuring franchise, which by now includes The Conjuring, one sequel, three spin-offs revolving around the demonic Annabelle doll and the prequel The Nun and the recent The Curse of La Llorona. It gets the job done, however, but with fewer myocardial infarction level jumps than franchise fans are probably used to.
Part of the problem is that the premise is getting a little too familiar and fans are getting a little too prepared for what lies ahead. That doesn’t mean they can’t get to you, though, and when the ugliest doll in the world gets her evil on, she’s still a force to be reckoned with.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their roles as Catholic demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the horror world’s answer to Ward and June Cleaver, who as the movie starts, are bringing the doll Annabelle to their home after the events of The Conjuring. (The doll is a demonic conduit, virtually catnip to malevolent spirits, and too dangerous to be destroyed. You understand.) They put it in a locked basement room in their home, locked inside a cabinet made of glass from windows of a demolished chapel. The cabinet itself has a conspicuous sign that says, unequivocally, “Do Not Open.”
You’d think that when demonologists put “Do Not Open” on a cabinet, people would pay attention. It’s right up there with the “coffins are chained shut for a reason” rule. You’d think.
As quickly as they’ve arrived, the Warrens depart for an unspecified trip, leaving their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) with a sitter, pretty high school senior Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). Judy is showing signs of having inherited her mother’s psychic abilities, which includes seeing ghosts. This is actually a two-edged sword, as Judy seems to take for granted apparitions which would have most people running for the door, screaming for the holy water. Mary Ellen is not supposed to have friends over while she babysits, but her pushy friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) shows up anyway, with a birthday present for Judy, so it would be rude to slam the door in her face.
Daniela, still mourning her father, who died in a car accident when Daniela was driving, is obsessed with communicating with the dead, a bad thing in this type of movie. It is emphatically not a spoiler to say that Annabelle does not stay locked in the basement, and all Hell does break loose.
The kids do the heavy lifting in this movie, but they’re up to the challenge. McKenna Grace, in particular, is a wonder to behold and it’s no wonder that she’s been so busy lately, including the recent TV miniseries The Haunting of Hill House, which revolutionized the ghost story to a far greater degree than any feature in recent memory. One scene in particular, in which she hides her eyes while holding up a crucifix to ward off a scary spectre, is particularly memorable for being believable. Iseman and Sarife are both perky and likeable, and credibly sell the spooky goings-on. Michael Cimino, as the good-looking boy next door, exudes the appropriate sincerity.
The script, by Gary Dauberman (who has written all the Annabelle movies) from a story by Dauberman and James Wan (who directed The Conjuring and has produced the entire franchise) is tidy and workable, though the material is beginning to get a little threadbare. All the movies in this franchise have benefited from strong cinematography and production values, and Annabelle Comes Home is no exception. Dauberman also directed, and makes his feature directorial debut without any serious missteps. He effectively uses the tried and true techniques of letting us glimpse spectral figures in the background or catch a hint of movement before the characters do, and the jumps seldom come from where you expect. Franchise fans may be a little surprised by his slow-burn, suspense-building approach to the early proceedings, but he does deliver enough jumps later on that audiences may be inclined to remember the film as more frightening than it actually is. The seventies’ ambience in the movie is fairly evocative.
Annabelle Comes Home holds its own in the spin-off franchise, none of which have really been as smart or scary as the original The Conjuring. Still, it does deliver enough chills and thrills to keep audiences on their toes, and as long as these modestly budgeted sequels, prequels and spin-offs continue to turn profits, you can assume we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle.