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Annabelle Comes Home is the Captain America: Civil War of The Conjuring Universe (TCU?). It’s the stake-less if very fun roller-coaster ride of a movie that’s given extra heft by taking the main characters of the franchise over to one of it’s spin-offs.
These are Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a demonologist and clairvoyant married couple. Based on real-life people, they first appeared in James Wan’s very solid 2013 horror The Conjuring, as well as its 2016 sequel. Up until now they have never appeared (aside from archival footage) in the franchises’ spin-offs – Annabelle, Annabelle Creation, The Curse of La Llorona and The Nun.
In the fun brief opening of Annabelle Comes Home, we see the couple in 1969 explaining to a petrified family why the title doll was spooking them. The Warrens tell them Annabelle is a conduit for demons to enter our world. Once anchored to the doll, the demons break its owners down by terrifying them until they’re so weak – they can seize their souls. Annabelle can’t be destroyed because that would free the evil. As Ed explains in The Conjuring, “sometimes the genie is better in the bottle.”
The family understandably are more than happy to let the Warrens take the doll. However, when the couples’ car breaks down on the way home outside a graveyard, Annabelle summons the spirits from the graves to attack Ed. Barely escaping alive, the duo realise the power of the doll. They quickly call over a priest to bless Annabelle, before shielding it in a case made from church glass – keeping it in a locked room in their house with all the other supernatural trinkets they’ve amassed throughout the years.
Cut to a year later, the Warrens are called away to investigate a case overnight. They leave their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace, young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya) in the care of sweet teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). At first all seems Rosy – aside from Judy beginning to see ghosts like her mother and being teased in school after a disparaging article about her parents is published. However, when Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) arrives uninvited into the Warren’s home, she unwittingly releases Annabelle from her case.
All taking place over one night, the horror sees the trio attempting to make matters right. This is as everything in the Warren’s room – including cursed samurai armour, a haunted wedding dress and the spirit of a hellhound – attacks them, sprured on by Annabelle.
The film is written and directed by Gary Dauberman who since Wan took a backseat in the franchise to work on Aquaman has been the Kevin Feige of the universe, writing the previous two Annabelles and The Nun. He feels like a steady hand here, not going for the easy jump scare as the less well-received movies in the franchise have done. Instead, he luxuriates in the tension, eschewing ‘quiet quiet bang’ moments in favour of slowly ratcheting the tension – with the help of a Shining-like score from Joseph Bishara (The Conjuring and Insidious films). That is until all hell breaks loose in the back-half.
To be honest, the film could have been made by a hack and still be pretty good thanks to its ingenious premise. Having re-watched The Conjuring recently – where we get a glimpse inside the room Annabelle’s kept – even then you feel that The Warrens stocking all these items where they lived with their child was a bad idea. As such, it is oddly satisfying to watch that point being proved, depicted almost like a horror theme park with spooky iconography constantly lunging at you from the dark. In this way it feels similar to Dauberman’s other major credit – 2017’s Stephen King adaptation It. Except here, he’s not weighed down by the heavy source. It’s just fun.
Annabelle Comes Home has other qualities that elevate it above some of its fellow spin-offs in the TCU. As opposed to the first very cheap looking Annabelle, the period decor and clothes are perfect. The performances from the young cast – particularly McKenna Grace (exuding a real Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things vibe) – are terrific. Their characters also have slightly more depth than you would expect. For instance, Daniela at first seems to be a goth stereotype, tempting fate just for kicks. However, pretty soon you come to learn she had good reason to enter The Warrens’ haunted room.
While its not the deepest most thoughtful horror in the world, it builds to a rather touching heartwarming final scene – book-ended by the solid Farmiga and Wilson. As the artsier, more divisive 147-minute Midsommar challenges cinema audiences – daring them to either love it or hate it – a movie like Annabelle Comes Home deserves praise too. It’s a 106-minute skillfully made thrill ride giving audiences what they want. Personally, it made me want to do a deep dive into the TCU and got me excited for next year’s The Conjuring 3.