Review: Annabelle Comes Home Lives Squarely, Scarily in the Conjuring Universe
The one thing that becomes abundantly clear after watching this third entry in the Annabelle series (which is a part of the so-called Conjuring universe) is that the closer these spinoff films are to the central figures of this universe, real-life paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the better they are. In my estimation, The Conjuring films (both directed by James Wan) set a new bar for modern ghost stories, both in terms of taking the spirit world, curses and possessions seriously, but also by delivering good, old-fashioned scares. So it is with no small amount of excitement that the presence of the Warrens in Annabelle Comes Home makes it a better movie.[caption id="attachment_54110" align="aligncenter" width="3000"] Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures[/caption]
The Warrens aren't the stars of the show, but they make substantial cameos in both the beginning and end of the new film, and anything that makes a movie more aligned with them is a plus in my book. The film opens with the couple taking possession of the creepy Annabelle doll and realizing as soon as on the drive home that even being in its immediate vicinity is cause for concern. Forced to stop at the scene of an accident, the psychically enhanced Lorraine begins to see the faces of the dead from a nearby cemetery, as well as the confused and scared ghost of the person who has just died in the accident, all of whom seem drawn to her and agitated at the presence of the doll in the backseat.
When the Warrens finally get home, they not only lock Annabelle in the familiar glass case we’ve seen in other movies, but they bring in a priest to seal in the evil presence in the case and the room (legend has it the Warrens had the room spiritually sealed once a month). Outside of this prologue, almost the entirety of Annabelle Comes Homes takes place with the walls of the Warren household, which is bold move that pays off exponentially by making every minute we have to spend in the home get more and more confining. There’s nothing we want more by the end of the movie than to be out of that house.
Most of the film takes place in the space of a just a few overnight hours, while the Warrens are out of town, leaving their 10-year-old daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) at home with babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). Obviously, Judy has lived with the Warrens her entire life, so the bizarre and troubling nature of their work is second hand to her, but it has made her the victim of bullying at school. Grace has made a career recently of playing younger incarnations of some very interesting characters, including Tonya Harding (in I, Tonya) and Carol Danvers (in Captain Marvel), but to see her really shine, check her out in Gifted, in which she plays a wildly intelligent kid who is uncomfortable with the way her brains make her stand out. There’s a similar quality to Judy—it’s clear she loves and is proud of her parents' work, but it does make her a target. The film leans into her feelings of isolation.
One of the film’s more interesting characters is Mary Ellen’s best friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), who seems like a bit of a wild child and troublemaker. When she finds out Mary Ellen is babysitting for the Warrens, she insists on being invited over so she can do a bit of snooping. At first, we believe Daniela is just being a brat who eventually sets loose a great deal of trouble, but it is soon revealed that her interest in the paranormal and afterlife is rooted in something much more substantial and personal. But this vulnerability also makes her a potential victim to demons looking for a weakness in her soul.
The reason Annabelle Comes Home works so well is that it’s relentless, and it rarely lets up in its attempts to scare the living crap out of us. There are few, if any, moments where the audience can take a breath because there’s always something else lurking around the next corner. What you may recall from previous Conjuring and Annabelle movies is that the doll lives in a locked room in the Warrens’ home, a home filled with dozens of haunted and cursed objects—a wedding dress, a samurai uniform, a typewriter, a piano, an ancient television, old coins, and the list goes on. When the snooping Daniela goes into the sealed room, she eventually breaks open Annabelle’s case, but she also touches/activates everything else in that room, all of which seems to take on an uglier, more terrifying energy in the presence of the doll. So during the course of the movie, we’re not just dealing with Annabelle (who becomes almost secondary, at least in terms of screen time, as the movies goes on), we’re dealing with a legion of pissed-off ghosts, including a few that may show up in future offshoot movies (like The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona).
In a way, Annabelle is like a greatest hits haunted house package. Writer-director Gary Dauberman (who had a hand in writing all three Annabelle movies and The Nun, as well as the two-part It adaptation) not only has a genuine sense of what makes the seemingly innocuous doll so terrifying, but he also has a grasp on what can make just about any object scary. But it’s through the impossibly mature and layered performance from Grace that we’re able to navigate this classic spook house with anything resembling our minds intact.
One of the most interesting aspects of the three Annabelle movies is that each one has a unique personality, despite all of them being guided by the Wan-led Conjuring universe of characters. The result is three works of differing quality (the first is not good; the other two are quite strong for different reasons); Annabelle Comes Home feels the most at home in the world of the Warrens, and that’s exactly where it belongs. Above all else, it makes me beyond excited for the next Conjuring movie in September 2020, which just began shooting earlier this month.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMa-KFfatT0
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.