The Pitch: Famed paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) keep some of the world’s most dangerous occult objects contained in the artifacts room of their family home. The most dangerous of them all is the demonic doll Annabelle, which Lorraine warns is a “beacon” for other evil spirits, locking her in a sanctified glass case for additional spiritual protection.
But when the Warrens leave their ten-year-old daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) alone one night with her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and the sitter’s devil-may-care best friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), Annabelle conjures up an escape of her own, with the rest of the Warrens’ spooky menagerie in tow.
“Not All Ghosts Are Bad”: The Conjuring series has had a spotty track record up to this point. Aside from the first installment and the surprisingly intriguing Annabelle: Creation, the retro-horror franchise has leaned harder on cheap jump scares over time than a successful execution of its throwback ’70s atmosphere. Good or bad, each film in the franchise (yes, even La Llorona) has masked schlockier tendencies under the inherent respectability of the films’ period settings and deliberate evocations of classic horror films like The Amityville Horror.
Annabelle Comes Home is a deliberate course correction for the series, and a somewhat refreshing one at that. It’s a down-and-dirty spookfest with absolutely no greater pretensions than to drag its characters (and by extension, the audience) through a relatively harmless haunted house experience. The scope and the stakes are low: while the Warrens bookend the film, Annabelle Comes Home keeps its primary focus on Judy and her teenage babysitters going through the worst sleepover of their lives, dodging all manner of inventive spooks and scares along the way.
Grace, Iseman, and Sarife are winsome leads, with stalwart Annabelle series scribe Gary Dauberman (making his directorial debut here) establishing clear dynamics for them to play with throughout. Judy is an awkward girl with latent psychic abilities just trying to enjoy herself before her eleventh birthday; Mary Ellen is the Laurie Strode type, as committed to Judy’s protection as she is her crush on an adorable classmate; Daniela’s the free spirit whose recklessness sets the film in motion. (Dauberman thankfully weaves in a reasonable motivation for Daniela to open all manner of doors she’s not supposed to, even if it still ultimately reads as a contrivance.) It’s not the most sophisticated stuff, but the young actors carry the film’s economical storytelling with aplomb.
Hell No, Dolly: While the first hour of Annabelle Comes Home soaks its audience in its groovy ’70s setting, Dauberman lets his considerable coterie of creatures loose in the second half, which is where his feature really kicks into high gear. (Expect plenty of needle-drops courtesy of the Warrens’ record player, just one of numerous tchotchkes in their Brady-fied pad.) The Conjuring series to date has mostly leaned toward the subdued, but Comes Home firmly roots itself in the territory of John Carpenter at his most playfully cruel, delighting in throwing all manner of creepazoids in the direction of its terrified teens and watching them scream and squirm.
The Warrens’ everyday domesticity has always made for an interesting contrast with their demonic encounters; while their presence is sparse in Annabelle Comes Home, their house maintains that uncanny mix of the domestic and supernatural. Dauberman mines oodles of tension out of everyday ’70s trappings like Feeley Meeley (an old board game where you reach into a dark box to retrieve items, a surprisingly effective vehicle for suspense) and a color wheel lamp on Judy’s nightstand.
Too Many Kooks: While its cast and stakes are sparse, Annabelle Comes Home overdoes it when it tries to expand the Conjuring universe’s existing bench of monsters. Annabelle’s the ringleader (her presence restricted mostly to that dead-eyed stare creeping up when you least expect it), but she also commands ghoulies like The Ferryman, a demon with coins over its eyes, or a blood-soaked wedding dress that possesses whoever wears it. (The most absurd is a werewolf, rendered with some of the weakest CG you’ll see all year.) While the scares work in isolation, there are only so many jump scares one can employ before the audience builds up its tolerance. After a while, Annabelle becomes more exhausting than exhilarating, sustained only by its game cast.
The Verdict: Annabelle Comes Home feels like a neighborhood haunted house burdened with a few too many gags, and featuring about as much story. It’s a shallow exercise in gimmicky scares, but that might be its greatest virtue: it’s a horror film of modest aspirations, avoiding the convoluted mythology of the rest of the series by planting a bunch of scary stuff in a room and setting it off. It all amounts to empty calories, but it satisfies in the moment.
Where’s It Playing? Annabelle Comes Home jumps out of the shadows and yells ‘boo!’ starting June 26th.