The seventh film in the Conjuring series and the third to focus on the now-famous Annabelle doll comes to us from first-time director Gary Dauberman, who previously wrote the first two Annabelle films and co-wrote The Nun, as well as the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s It.
Following the events of Annabelle and The Conjuring, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) have come into possession of the cursed titular doll, and they resolve to keep her spirit contained within their secret artifact room full of demons. The doll is apparently so evil that it must be periodically blessed by a priest, a notion which sadly isn’t as silly and fun as it sounds.
Some time later, the Warrens leave their ten-year old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, whom you might recognize from this year’s Captain Marvel) in the care of Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) for a night, but Mary’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife, nicely fitting into the “irresponsible friend” role) can’t resist the temptation to enter the room of demons and surreptitiously release a few of them, and the evening rapidly becomes more exciting than any of them were expecting.
In spite of that seemingly incident-heavy premise, the movie is surprisingly slow-moving. Much of the pre-horror setup is somewhat character-driven, which certainly isn’t unwelcome in this series. Due to her parent’s ghostly occupation, we quickly learn that Judy is unfairly ridiculed on a daily basis, which isn’t helped by the fact that she has inherited some of her mother’s psychic abilities.
The movie is cleverly showing us the impact the Warrens — or at least this fictionalized version of them — have had on their own household, without having to worry about urgently saving the lives of a haunted family. Because we’ve seen other films in the series, we know that the existence of the supernatural is a given for these characters, but the rest of the world isn’t buying it yet, and Judy finds herself in the incredibly unique position of being unable to do anything about it, as much as she may want to.
We also find out that, in spite of the careless impression she gives, Daniela is (figuratively) haunted by the recent death of her father and is subconsciously drawn to the possibility that something in the Warren’s household might help her to cope with it. As a result, she finds herself unexpectedly bonding with Judy just in time for the real horror to begin, but the good movie we were gearing up for is sadly never conjured.
On the one hand, the notion of a house haunted by dozens of evil spirits is full of storytelling promise. Several early scenes taking place in the artifact room make a point of showing various demons, as if reassuring the audience that they’re in for an overwhelming showing of hellish thrills. The only problem is that…they aren’t.
Annabelle Comes Home quickly becomes more horror-centric as soon as the character-based setup is over with, and the horror ironically never measures up to the previous drama. In all fairness, there are a handful of moments that play with our expectations in fun ways. For instance, an early scene shows Lorraine obstructing her view in a mysterious graveyard. We’re all expecting some scary creature to appear behind it, and an unusual catharsis is experienced when there isn’t one.
There’s a loud knock at the door in another scene, and the same catharsis is created, but that’s really the only interesting trick up the movie’s sleeve. The very premise of releasing every evil spirit collected by demonologists creates an image of a wacky, demonic, and utterly haunted house, but the movie is going for a much simpler tone.
What we get instead are the same scares we’ve seen in every one of these movies: a demon quietly appears in a dark hallway, someone turns around only to see that they aren’t there, the demon suddenly appears and loudly screams in their face, and a quick cut is made to another character hearing the skirmish. This goes on for about an hour, complete with a series of deafening sound effects that immediately become obnoxious.
Again, this movie does deserve credit for having a somewhat satisfying conclusion, but its pathos is completely separated from the horror elements, and most of the movie feels perfunctory as a result. The drama is downplayed in favor of the scare attempts, and the horror elements themselves are tiresome and repetitive (we’re lucky if we can even visibly see what’s happening). As a result, Annabelle Comes Home comes off as incomplete, or missing the connective tissue between what it wants to do and what it really is.
What could be thin, pulpy entertainment instead tries to be heavy and serious. Every demon behaves in exactly the same manner, so there’s no reason to entice the viewer with such an exciting haunted house premise. The movie isn’t interested in being campy, and what it is interested in isn’t interesting.
It’s presented as cerebral horror, or at the very least, a slow burn. But it’s not sharp enough to earn its heaviness. It’s not fun, it’s not that scary, it’s visually unclear, and it certainly isn’t very rewarding. There are attempts at broad comedy that would’ve worked great in another movie, and there’s a single sequence of genuine fright involving an otherworldly TV set, but that’s about as good as it gets.
With the Warrens generally out of the picture, it falls on the three young performers to carry us through the plot, and they manage to do so surprisingly well. I feel like I know them, at least in the way the movie wants me to try, and I genuinely want them to survive the night. Katie Sarife gives a particularly layered performance as someone who acts as a character in the movie, not just in real life. It’s her movie in many regards, and I believe the film is better off for it.
Annabelle Comes Home isn’t a total miss, but it does make you wonder if they could’ve made something significantly better, regardless of how high they were aiming. Whether that’s changing the tone and style completely (which may have been implausible from the relatively modest budget) or retooling the narrative they were working with, the Conjuring series certainly hasn’t struck gold yet, for me at least.
That said, it’s certainly of a piece with every one of its spectral peers, so if any of them have worked for you in the past, this one will likely do the same. Admittedly, I can’t honestly say that I’ve liked any of them, for whatever that’s worth. It’s not as fresh or exciting as it easily could’ve been, and it’s ultimately unsuccessful in fulfilling its own sense of shadowy portent, in spite of some precious beacons of salvation along the way.