Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
Director: Gary Dauberman
Performers: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, and Katie Sarife
Annabelle (2014) was a divisive film among horror fans: on the one hand, it’s a spinoff of the popular The Conjuring (2013) films which undeniably drew in audiences, but on the other hand it’s a predictable series of movies about a possessed doll. There’s really only so much they can do with that premise within the context of The Conjuring’s shared universe. Enter Annabelle Comes Home (2019) where the premise takes a more interesting turn. Part Adventures in Babysitting (1987), the film has some solidly creepy moments and some decent character development as the franchise works on further fleshing out its world-building. There are some particularly good moments early in the film and it does a great job evoking the feel of the 1970s. However, weak CGI and predictable moments keep it firmly in the realm of spinoff instead of manifesting its own individual success.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The film begins with Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) taking possession of the doll Annabelle and then driving home. This is a time before cell phones and GPS, so we viewers feel their isolation from the world around them as they navigate a road map in the dark more than the characters on screen. This changes though after an encounter near a cemetery when Lorraine discovers that the doll is a beacon for spirits. The threat of Annabelle’s presence in the seat behind them looms over each moment in these opening scenes, and the car feels claustrophobic as the day turns to night. It’s some effective filmmaking with likeable characters.
This and the doll’s containment in the beginning of the film are really some of the strongest moments, and it’s a bit frustrating later when the Warren adults are gone on assignment, leaving their daughter, her babysitter, and her babysitter’s friend home alone. Still, it’s an interesting premise as the town reacts to new information that their neighbors the Warrens are involved in exorcisms. Their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) suffers the most as both a young psychic and a victim of bullying. Nowadays, this would be tackled with more tact. However, this was the 1970s, and kids were expected to solve problems like bullying on their own. It’s just one more way director Gary Dauberman isolates the characters by staying true to the setting. This continues with babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) not knowing her friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) lost her dad in a car crash. Daniele, as we soon learn, will do anything to get a chance to talk to her father’s spirit. This leads to interesting moments as Mary, unaware of the depth of her friend’s pain, tries and fails to dissuade Daniela from pursuing The Warren’s knowledge of the afterlife. In her quest, she sets loose the spirits, and comes in contact with a version of her father sure to scar her for life. This approach makes for refreshing storytelling, wherein the young person foolish enough to trifle with danger does so out of a desperate desire to commune with and resolve past trauma. The final conversation between a contrite Daniela and an understanding Lorraine Warren is touching instead of reproachful. Again, loads of potential here and some strong moments.
For the most part, the ghost designs and effects are pretty good. With few exceptions (I’m looking at you, Black Shuck), the spirits in this film are unsettling in a good way. From a cursed wedding dress to a Ferryman spirit obsessed with coins over his victim’s eyes, there’s more than just Annabelle to creep out viewers. The problem is that, while the creature feature aspect is a load of fun, there’s not nearly enough time dedicated to exploring these various facets. Some of the ghosts suffer from painful scenes that either have weak special effects or were obviously cut for time. The Warren’s case files are major set pieces for giving backstory, for example, but we don’t get long to look at them. The television was particularly interesting too: Did it see the future or just manipulate the viewer into behaving the way it wanted? If it saw the future, why did the future for Daniela change? There could honestly be a Night Gallery style series about these entities, and the filmmakers are clearly testing the waters here.
If you’re looking for a fun movie with little gore but a couple of nice scares, this one’s a good fit. Even better if you’re already invested in The Conjuring universe, or just find dolls creepy.
The biggest problem for these Conjuring spinoffs though is the lack of clear stakes for the characters. While they each come close to injury, the kids end up with hardly any damage by the end of the film. For all the near misses and close calls, this lack of eminent danger makes the ghosts seems weak and less dangerous. Whether you believe the real-life Warrens were actual ghost and demon hunters or frauds, these artifacts and the spirits within them are supposed to be life-threateningly dangerous. It’s one thing for Ed and Lorraine Warren to survive, but it’s another for three teenagers and a child. This is an R- rated movie, so why avoid blood and real injury to our protagonists? The ghosts, as in The Nun (2018) and The Curse of La Llorona (2019), are all about scaring their victims but not actually doing anything meaningful. If this is a demonic curse, why are the demons so weak?