Director: Gary Dauberman
Stars: Katie Sarife, Madison Iseman, Mckenna Grace
Ah, back again. The franchise offshoot that just won’t die. Annabelle is a weird one. A series centred on an evil doll from The Conjuring which is completely inanimate, yet acts as a conduit for a cumbersome demon that wants to suck your soul out. The first movie lacked pizazz (but I have a soft spot for it all the same), while prequel Annabelle Creation impressed on first approach, but rapidly declines in quality on each subsequent revisit. That James Wan’s creative team keep going back to the well seems based purely on box office receipts. And as The Nun proved, there’s an audience here for any old shit.
Gary Dauberman has a lot to answer for, having penned all of these films so far, as well as the aforementioned atrocity The Nun. That he now steps into the director’s chair causes more goosebumps than any of his spooky movies combined. But wait, with no real expectations for better, Dauberman has quietly and cannily taken back control. Annabelle Comes Home outstrips arguably every other entry in this wonkily constructed cinematic universe, and acts as a sort of centralising Avengers episode. It uses a lot of the same tricks we’ve seen before, but it also changes up the formula with tweaks here and there, and adds a little something that’s been sorely lacking: character.
The titular doll is secured in the possession of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who insist on storing a lightning rod for evil in their own personal museum of barely-dormant evil shit. While its nice to have the series’ central couple back, they’re really just window-dressing for a tight little haunted house movie for which they are almost completely absent.
Away on business, the Warrens leave their daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), in the care of babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). In fine horror movie tradition, the babysitter has an unruly friend; Daniela (Katie Sarife). Daniela is particularly interested in the Warrens’ room of paranormal paraphernalia. Her prying unboxes our dear Annabelle once more, and the three girls are set for a night of threatening scares as all manner of other evils are unleashed.
These flicks are known and derided for their hyperactivity; something that particularly dogs 2017’s Annabelle Creation, so its a refreshing change to find Dauberman more interested in the slow escalation of tension and unease. Sure, his film is prone to having its spectres appear ominously in the background, half-rubbed out in deep focus, but he gains a lot of goodwill through leaving them there. On a number of occasions he plays us for suckers, leading us to expect a crashing jump, only to deny us the release. It ratchets up the discomfort and doesn’t let you off the hook.
Granted, come the third act, Annabelle Comes Home assaults you with every little trick its been showing up its sleeves but, if I might draw a hyperbolic comparison, its not dissimilar to The Shining in that regard. With a murky evil lurking in a dense atmospheric fog outside, the kids are trapped inside the house as if they were situated on a snowy Colorado mountain instead of in a leafy Connecticut suburb. Dauberman isn’t working at Kubrick’s level. Not nearly. But the methodology isn’t so far removed.
He is ably abetted by composer Joseph Bishara, who provides a truly haunting (haunted?) backing track to the feature, one that is more commonly interested in heightening the emotional intensity of a moment than lurching and lumbering about the place as these inelegant movies are more commonly prone. It’s one of the finest scores I’ve heard all year, in fact, and goes some way to cementing Annabelle Comes Home as one of the more effective ghost stories of recent years.
His young players bring a lot to the table, too. The youngest, Mckenna Grace, recalls Mad Men-era Kiernan Shipka, and may have a similarly promising career ahead. She makes young Judy thoughtful, vulnerable, yet steely with resolve when she needs to be. Imagine growing up in that house.
Sarife and Iseman, meanwhile, are persistently good company. By taking his time and allowing us to know his identikit teens, Dauberman manages to make these characters richer than any he’s previously (ahem) conjured, and the actors are a big part of bringing this much needed warmth and humanity. So many throwaway teen horrors fall down because their leads are either underwritten or simply obnoxious. Dauberman has taken notes. It’s a far scarier proposition if you like the people in harm’s way. Simply, he gets you invested.
Wardrobe and production design complete the package. Although it occasionally leans too hard on dark shadows, Annabelle Comes Home is easily one of the best looking entries in this universe. These simple aesthetic pleasures add up to a lot of goodwill. The scale of the picture is pleasing, too. There’s a modesty to it that makes it feel nicely contained. You don’t need to have seen any of the other films, really, to have a good time with this one.
But boy is it priming you for more. The Warrens’ cellar is a veritable mine of future commodities waiting to happen, from a TV that shows you the immediate future to an inexplicably evil little cymbal monkey. I can’t quite see how a whole movie centred around board game Feeley Meeley would work, but I wouldn’t bet against it happening. With Annabelle acting as a catalyst for all of them, however, this taster session has the feel of a cut-up anthology piece. It’s a fun little horror buffet, if you will. A little bit of this… a little bit of that…
Still, Annabelle Comes Home does hit its glass ceiling. With none of the leads knowing what is going on for most of the night, they lack agency. A little too often the picture rests on the simple premise of a scared girl trying to get out of a dark room. But Dauberman nips nimbly from room to room, girl to girl. These popcorn horror flicks are meant to play as disposable ghost train rides. On that level, Annabelle Comes Home is one of the best in the business. Drawing together the strongest elements of what’s been achieved so far, if you’re new to The Conjuring universe, this might be the best place to start.
I may end up on the outside of this one, but honestly, I had so much fun.