Annabelle Comes Home is the 7th and most recent movie in the Conjuring universe (the second this year alone), as well as the 3rd movie revolving around the titular doll. It was written by, and is the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, who also penned the scripts for the previous Annabelle movies, and The Nun spinoff film. In this installment, set in 1971 after the events of the original Conjuring film, Ed and Lorraine Warren bring Annabelle back to their den of horrors, locking in her in a glass case after calling on one of the fathers of the faith to bless the doll and contain its evil. In the light on the cases the Warrens have been working, newspaper headlines are beginning to wonder if they are heroes or merely hoaxes attempting to grab the spotlight, and this begins to take a toll on the personal life of Judy, their only daughter (played by Mckenna Grace). But one night when their usual babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) comes to watch over Judy, an unexpected visitor shows up, and lets loose a flurry of demonic forces hell-bent on taking Judy’s soul, including Annabelle herself. With the Warrens out of town, and unable to help, our main characters are left to fend for themselves, and the only question that matters is whether they’ll survive the night.
Let me start off by clarifying something: I haven’t yet seen all the movies set in the Conjuring universe, so when I say something like “this isn’t as bad as the first Annabelle” even though I haven’t actually seen that first movie, I’m generally speaking more from a place of this one not being as poorly received by critics and audiences in general. However, when I say that it’s not quite as good as Annabelle: Creation, I am speaking from a place of personal opinion, as I actually have seen that movie. I’ll try to keep it as non-complicated as I can in those respects, but I can’t promise that everything in this review will be 100% clear for those who are relatively unfamiliar with how my reviewing style operates. For those of you who don’t: I say what I can with the information I have, and any that I don’t have generally comes from a place of reliance on reliable entertainment journalism and general knowledge, hence why I mention the first Annabelle, even though I haven’t seen it myself (I also haven’t seen 2019’s earlier installment in this franchise, The Curse of La Llorona, so if that’s in any way relevant to this movie, I wouldn’t know about it). And yes, to be sure, from a critical perspective reliant on those sources, this isn’t as bad as the first Annabelle. In fact, it’s mostly pretty good, but it ultimately falls prey to some issues it just can’t seem to overcome in order to be great, which puts it below that second installment. So, let’s take a dive into Annabelle Comes Home.
The movie begins with a sequence exclusively featuring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the infamous Warrens from the Conjuring films, taking Annabelle back to their house in their car, and for what it’s worth, it’s a really solid, well-crafted sequence that lets us know right away that director Gary Dauberman has been learning a lot from his previous writing jobs in the franchise, and mostly has a handle on how things are apt to go by now. It’s slow, it’s tense, the silence of it is incredibly eerie, and the almost total lack of jump scares in the opening moments bring the film to a place the original series of films, for all their well-crafted natures, have failed to yet reach in being genuinely scared of what’s outside the frame. The great Martin Scorsese said it best: “in cinema, what’s outside of the frame matters just as much as what’s inside the frame,” and the opening sequence of this movie understands that better than almost any other moment in the film.
After this opening sequence, we’re treated to the main meat of the narrative, the thing the movie is actually about, which is Judy getting haunted by all the demons that are let out of her parents’ room, particularly Annabelle herself. The movie takes its time getting there, though, and at first, it seems like the Conjuring formula of creature makeup and jump scares is being shaken up, as the first act takes its time letting us get to know the characters we’re going to be watching the rest of the time, building them up with sympathy and problems of their own outside of the haunting material. We genuinely get to know each one of them (except for one, but we’ll talk about that later), and it’s a much slower first act than most Conjuring films take, letting the horror reside in the atmosphere of what could happen rather than just diving straight in, and that’s a refreshing move to pull for a franchise so far in that they could be confident in just making money off the scares alone (although this series is about as shaky as Fox’s X-Men, so who knows). The film is also pretty well shot as well, which isn’t something one typically thinks about with standard horror movies, DP Michael Burgess is patient with his camera, which adds a real sense of tension to what could be outside the frame.
Suffice it to say, one of the characters, named Daniela (played pretty damn well by Katie Sarife) is not the ditsy, annoying 70s final girl she’s at first projected to be by the script. The movie makes it out to be that she just wants to unlock the room and “see the scary stuff” it contains at first, but it becomes apparent none too soon after this occurs that she actually has a far more sympathetic purpose for doing this than the first act or so would lead one to believe, and Sarife acts the hell out of that switch of character, managing to make her someone we actually want to root for by the film’s end despite where she started out. It’s a really solid performance that should be given more credit, as she ends up stealing the show from the two main characters, Judy and Mary Ellen. That’s not to say that those characters are in any way poorly conceived, though, as actresses Mckenna Grace and Madison Iseman more than earn their place on the Conjuring roster with really solid performances of their own. They won’t end up on the Oscar stage in 2020 or anything, but for a movie to have the flaws this one has and still boast believable characters and performances is saying something, considering that the two usually go together.
Unfortunately, one of those flaws is the seemingly out-of-nowhere inclusion of a male character named Bob Palmeri (played by Michael Cimino). The performance itself isn’t terrible (although nothing remarkable), but the scripts kind of just forgets that he exists until it needs him to in order to defeat a monster or flirt with our lead character, and the film ultimately would have been no different if he just weren’t in it at all. As well, the film tries to pull the “scary thing is behind a character and then the character moves in front of it and now the character moves back and it’s not there” trick from every other generic horror movie a few too many times, and before long, you can see it coming a mile away, which takes out a lot of the tension in the second act where it should be the heaviest. Also, this is just something I noticed, but one of the girls is completely possessed by a demon at one point, and then after one of them performs a “projectorcism” (you’ll see what I’m talking about if/when you see the movie), she’s just…totally fine; no scratches, cuts, breaks, no residual mental damage, nothing. It’s weird.
The largest flaw this movie has, though, is its pacing. Remember how I mentioned the first act felt deliberately slow, like it couldn’t wait to make us squirm for what was about to happen? Well the second act isn’t like that at all. It manages to feature a few clever scares, and Dauberman throws in some interesting concepts, like a tv that shows people inevitabilities that one character gets stuck with at a point, but because there’s so many horror monsters that have been unleashed that the movie has to deal with, the focus is pulled away from the titular doll, and the second act just rushes past in order to get to the finale where all the monsters can come into one place and scare the main characters. And even then, they don’t even deal with all the monsters that got let loose, if I’m remembering correctly. It’s a real shame too, because that opening sequence and first act are so well and deliberately paced that it seemed like the Conjuring universe films had matured to a new level of patience and letting things simmer. Alas, the second act (while not all bad) is far too rushed and unfocused to give the franchise that mark of growth. And the finale? Way too easy and convenient for our main characters to deal with. I won’t spoil how or why, but it is, and if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.
In the end, Annabelle Comes Home is a fine, perfectly serviceable horror movie that shows some really solid potential for director Gary Dauberman’s career in film, particularly horror. It’s not nearly as bad as the first Annabelle, but it also doesn’t quite feature the same tonal or pacing consistency present in the somewhat underrated Annabelle: Creation. In terms of ranking this among the other Conjuring universe films, I’m not sure where it fits, but even if it’s not quote as good as its potential makes it seem like it could be, it’s a more than okay time at the movies. Maybe see it at a discount price.
I’m giving “Annabelle Comes Home” a 6.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.