Studio: New Line Cinema
Director: Gary Dauberman
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Producer: Peter Safran, James Wan
Stars: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Michael Cimino, Samara Lee, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson
Curses and creatures haunt Judy Warren and her babysitter after a friend unintentionally unlocks the evil Annabelle doll.
It’s amusing that The Conjuring Universe built itself on the supposedly “true” case files of controversial demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. Yet of the seven connected films released thus far, only two of them link to actual people while the other five are entirely made up. That really says something about how uneventfully devoid of paranormal activity those files must be that they merely motivate props without offering meaty material for entertaining terror tales.
Prop is the role played by the titular doll in “Annabelle Comes Home.” True to her treatment in “Annabelle” (review here) and “Annabelle: Creation” (review here), Annabelle only moves when no one looks. She’s not a killer kid’s toy like Chucky or “Puppet Master’s” Blade. She’s not even possessed. As Lorraine Warren’s fictional incarnation puts it, she’s simply “a beacon for other spirits.”
That explains why Annabelle’s inclusion in the third movie bearing her name feels like a title-based obligation. Instead of focusing on “what should Annabelle get into this time,” it seems her stewards only asked, “how do we force Annabelle to fit into this loosely related setup for something else?”
If my home hosted the world’s largest private collection of haunted artifacts, leaving my young daughter alone with her teenage babysitter for a weekend would never cross my mind. Yet that’s what Ed and Lorraine do when they drop out after the pre-title sequence, during the lead-up to their daughter’s birthday no less, to swing the spotlight toward Judy Warren and family friend Mary Ellen.
Mckenna Grace marks a perfect choice for Judy by being as infectiously affable as her onscreen parents Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. Psychic sensitivity inherited from mom gives Judy an ability to see ghosts. Coupled with Ed and Lorraine’s local reputation, Judy’s peculiar pedigree earns bullying in equal measure to rejected invites for her upcoming party.
Even though outsider status darkens clouds overhead, Judy only mopes for a moment. Her faith assures her to hang in there, and Grace puts that patience into compelling smiles earning easy endearment as a relatable kid maturing through unusually awkward circumstances. You probably can’t recall specific orphans from “Annabelle: Creation,” but you will remember “Annabelle Comes Home’s” confidently constructed characters. Their likability quickly turns into the film’s greatest strength, with Judy/Grace sitting in the nexus.
Madison Iseman molds Mary Ellen from Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. Actions are either cute or crafty, although adversity unlocks resilient behavior fortifying her as an empowered protector. Mary Ellen also gets a giddily goofy romance with Bob (Michael Cimino), who pops in whenever writer/director Gary Dauberman calls for a side serving of comic relief. Bob’s scattered appearances deflate more tension than intended, but his personality becomes a crowd-pleaser while “Bob’s got balls” becomes the movie’s tongue-in-cheek mantra.
Judy and Mary Ellen are too goody-goody to be given the burden of unleashing Annabelle. That dishonor falls to Mary Ellen’s sassy BFF Daniela (Katie Sarife). Daniela might succumb to stereotyping if Sarife didn’t have such an appealing presence to perk up her personality. Daniela’s reasons for futzing in the Warrens’ off-limits room also get justifiably juiced by a heartfelt, albeit familiar, backstory. Daniela just wants to contact her father whose death she faults herself for. Surely Ed and Lorraine hide something that can help.
Daniela of course unlocks Annabelle before being drawn away by a conveniently timed distraction. With the cast of characters sufficiently hitched to audience investment, “Annabelle Comes Home” now becomes an anthology of spooky imagery and pop scares that whirl in a loop before returning all of the toys to where they started. Annabelle’s “evil” attracts appearances from a British werewolf, an afterlife ferryman, a bloody ghost bride, even a haunted television. With Annabelle herself hardly anywhere to be found, the movie doesn’t do much to advance her mythology. It’s more of an audition reel for various creatures and curses to see if any of them stick enough to warrant another spinoff.
“Annabelle Comes Home” fills out fine as a visual freak show. Dauberman delivers memorably cinematic scares such as suddenly dropping coins from a ferryman corpse to a cascade of shadows transforming Annabelle into a demon on Judy’s bedroom wall. Staying in the spirit of “actual” ghosts, other scares are of the creeping around the house with things knocking around variety. Because what demon in search of a soul wouldn’t want to waste time with such mundane acts as tipping over a glass of milk in the kitchen?
Beneath enjoyably eerie sights and sounds, weird editing arrangements flummox the flow of limited fiction. For instance, an intense early scene terrifies Judy with the knife-wielding bride. Not long after, Judy completely calms to a point where she can casually review family case files with Mary Ellen and Daniela like she wasn’t almost just murdered by a ghost. Digging into the files should additionally incentivize Daniela to break into the artifact room, not take place after all of this other action.
Another sequence has the trio selecting a board game to play. They’re only on their first turn when Bob and a stoner pizza delivery guy ring the bell for one of Bob’s ha-ha intermissions. Cut to Judy watching TV alone on the couch. Where did everyone else suddenly go? The board game is the strangest sort of Chekhov’s gun because it sets up a fake-out to take place before a proper payoff, making its strange setup even odder.
Appearances from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Ed and Lorraine are a prime selling point for “Annabelle Comes Home.” They aren’t around much though, basically only bookending the movie in a prologue and epilogue.
Fortunately, the three leading ladies collectively cough up copious charisma. Their energetic chemistry keeps “Annabelle Comes Home” engaging even when its stride slows or frights read as feeble. Quality characterization is a prime saving grace, which doesn’t mean to insist the movie would fall on its face otherwise. “Annabelle Comes Home” is merely more of a popcorn-and-candy lark than a nightmare-inducing fright film. That appears to be where this series wants to go anyway. Meanwhile, the franchise’s desire to become a creepy carnival of monsters and madness pushes Annabelle further and further into the background.
Review Score: 60