When Annabelle the doll first showed up in James Wan’s The Conjuring, few of us probably expected we’d be here just six years later with three Annabelle movies and others in the same universe. Yet with no doubt in my mind, Annabelle Comes Home is the best of the Conjuring spinoffs…
…It isn’t often that the third film in a spinoff series is the most effective—in fact, it may even be a first—but that’s the case with Annabelle Comes Home, and I’m as shocked as you are. Truthfully, I haven’t much enjoyed the Annabelle films, yet writer/director Gary Dauberman, in his impressive directorial debut, has brought together all of the elements that work in The Conjuring universe and fused them together for exciting, haunted house horror. In the film, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) have left their daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace) for the night in the care of her babysitter, Mary (Madison Iseman). But when Mary’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife) decides to sneak into the Warren’s locked room of cursed horrors, she accidentally unleashes Annabelle and a whole host of entities hell-bent on swallowing the souls of the three girls.
Dauberman sets the stage early with a scene showing Ed and Lorraine bringing Annabelle home and encountering a few terrors on a lonely road. Cinematographer Michael Burgess and Dauberman drench the scene in fog so thick, you’ll feel your skin growing cold. Annabelle Comes Home is gothic horror in its purest form. Some may call it cliché, but I love a film that revels in so much fog that the inside of the Warren’s house might as well be a Snoop Dog concert. Between Burgess’ rich cinematography and loud, heart-stopping sound design that will make your bones rattle, Dauberman delivers an atmospheric haunted house aesthetic that haunts the screen from beginning to end without ever letting up.
Bringing it all together are our three heroines, all of whom are deeply sympathetic, well rounded, and well-acted. By sending Ed and Lorraine off on some mysterious, overnight errand, Annabelle Comes Home smartly eliminates the calming presence of the two, leaving us in the hands of three kids who have no idea what they’re doing. Annabelle Comes Home actually takes its time in building these three girls before unleashing hell on them. Mary is the sort of sweet babysitter we all hoped for as kids, and Daniela’s motivation for being “that character” and letting the demons loose is highly personable, but of course, the real star here is McKenna Grace as Judy. A little girl suffering from the same gift as her mother, Judy is a lonely child without any friends, with an agony displayed by McKenna that broke my heart. Yet the little actress stands tall throughout as a dominant force that isn’t afraid of no ghosts, stealing scenes left and right from her talented co-stars. This is a film about learning to cope with death, and all three actresses deliver moving performances through the way they deal with it.
Getting us to care about each and every character (including Mary’s adorable love interest, Bob, played by Michael Cimino), pays huge dividends for the film once the ectoplasm hits the fan, and boy, does it get messy. Annabelle Comes Home is ninety-plus minutes of funhouse terror, with a collection of eerie ghosts that all demand your attention. From a blood-splattered Bride to a Ferryman with coins for eyes and even a misty, phantom werewolf, there’s something to appeal to every ghost fan, with huge potential for a variety of spinoffs to come. Dauberman finds inventive ways to scare the souls right out of the audience with each new entity, including one or two moments in contention so far for best scares of the year. This film is playtime with Annabelle and friends, and while it feels at times as if the studio is throwing everything it can at us in an effort to see what sticks for a potential spinoff, the film rarely feels bogged down by it. Annabelle Comes Home is a crowd-pleaser that just wants to have fun, and it delivers with tons of laughs and screams.
And while the film does, for the most part, avoid falling into the “nothing but jump scares” trap that so many like it do, Annabelle Comes Home isn’t without its own issues that haunt the script. Dauberman does a great job of developing atmosphere and genuine terror, but a little after the halfway mark, with our characters all separated and locked away with their own horrific dilemma, the plot comes to a screeching standstill, and is substituted for scare after scare. Annabelle Comes Home meanders for a bit here, as none of the characters seem to be going anywhere or doing much, and it’s at this point that the legit haunted house nature of the film can begin to feel like overkill. Our nerves can only take so much shock before we go numb, after all. That being said, the Warren's place is like walking through a well-made haunted house. Whether you’re scared or laughing at not being scared, you’re still having a good time, which Annabelle Comes Home is all about.
The only area where Annabelle Comes Home truly failed for me was in the finale, which reeks of anti-climactic simplicity that feels a touch lazy and dare I say, boring. The film plays it way too safe here and lacks the creativity displayed previously. Still, Dauberman immediately follows it up with an epilogue that I hate to admit brought tears to my eyes, proof that the characters in Annabelle Comes Home are painfully endearing. What plays as a thrilling journey through the most haunted house you’ve ever seen ultimately ends up as a heartwarming story that has been missing from the other films. Dauberman has established himself as the lifeblood of these spinoffs, and I personally can’t wait to see where this universe goes next. Fingers crossed for phantom werewolf.
Warner Bros unleashes Annabelle Comes Home in theaters TONIGHT!
By Matt Konopka