ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019)
Directed by Gary Dauberman
Chucky already returned this Summer, along with Woody and Buzz. But there’s still room for one more franchise toy come to life: Annabelle. She’s back, and this time she’s got friends. The Conjuring Universe has been nothing if not inconsistent, with films like The Conjuring 2 being weighed down by dross like The Nun and this year’s The Curse of La Llorona. At their best, they’re classic horror flicks with a modern makeover, that can find big scares in mundane places (Annabelle: Creation). At their worst, they’re CG borefests or a collection of tropes linked a flimsy plot (the original Annabelle). Sitting at a one-one draw, Gary Dauberman, who scripted both other Annabelle outings, makes his directorial debut with this everything but the kitchen sink sequel. Think of it as Night at the Haunted Museum.
The Warrens, Loraine (Farmiga) and Ed (Wilson) are out of town, so teen babysitter Mary Ellen (Iseman) is looking after their daughter Judy (Grace). However, driven by a combo of grief and curiosity, her friend Daniela (Sarife) comes over and disobeys the simple rule of not going into the storeroom of enchanted artefacts. Once inside her eyes fall on a certain creepy looking doll she lets out of its case. This is a big no-no, as regular fans will be aware, since Annabelle is a real piece of work. True to form, she summons all the other haunted items in the Warren’s house like a beacon of badness. Among the many other malevolent foes, we’ve got the mythic Greek figure of the Ferryman (a spin-off in the making), a ghost werewolf, a handy board-game, a wedding dress that’ll turn anyone into Bridezilla, a creepy typewriter, a nasty piano and even some prickly Shogun armour. The only way to stop them all causing havoc is to get their leader back in her little box again.
Putting the focus on young people again is a good idea. The Warrens are out the way for most of the movie aside from an excellently staged opening section set a year prior, during which they bring Annabelle to their house. This lets Dauberman creates a sense of peril that’s missing from lesser entries in the wider series. Although Mary Ellen is too much of a blank slate, with a relatable awkwardness around her favourite grocery shop assistant being her only idiosyncrasy, Iseman does well. Sarife is solid too, playing her part with enough vulnerability to make her sympathetic despite the whole plot resting on her doing dumb things. But the star of the show is Mckenna Grace who I’d hope has a heck of a career ahead of her. With prior Warrens’ tales using their marriage as the emotional core, it makes sense to widen the focus to their family unit. If you thought your parents were embarrassing, try being the daughter of widely criticised ghost-hunters. Hence it’s rewarding to see her come into a position of strength as the story goes on: a chip off the old block. The trio’s bond is quite affecting, and gives the film an easy charm that’s less self-aerious than other entries whilst having as heavy stakes. Still, the relatively lightweight approach to characterisation means its less complete than The Conjuring 2, and possibly Annabelle Creation.
I think of there as being two poles of horror. It’s a proposition that shows the folly of a star rating system, since something scoring higher than a film of the other type doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. They are, after all, doing very different things (and that’s not just me getting my excuses in for rating this higher than Midsommar). There’s disturbing horror, that’s meant to get deep under your skin and stay there. It inspires feelings of dread and creates a sense of unease which lingers long after the screening’s over. Both of Ari Aster’s feature films are good examples of this. Then you’ve got your ghost-train horror, which you probably won’t think about much after it’s over. But for those 90 odd minutes, you’re gripped. Annabelle Comes Home falls very much into the second camp. It’s pure carnival, with enough jumps and jolts to entertain even the snobbiest audience member. There’s a contagious, joyful feeling of anarchy as the numerous things which go bump in the night come out. At the centre of it all is obviously Annabelle, who has plenty highlights of her own, though the rest of the ghoulish line-up is strong. Each gets their turn to shine but none outstay their welcome – like an eerie take on speed-dating. I expect Dauberman had a great time coming with them. By now he’s also an expert in pacing, and the first two acts in which various items in the house awaken is a masterclass in escalation.
The only blip is, unfortunately, the climax, that comes and goes far too quickly to the point you’re waiting for a coda that never arrives. Still, more than any other movie in the series, this one invites us to feel what the characters do. The horror bits are all up close and personal, with the camera hanging over the girls’ shoulders or just in front of their face to create an empathy with them. It also means that the scares can come from anywhere, with you constantly worrying what’s out of frame or just what’s going to be around the next corner. Sometimes I found myself gleefully holding my breath with the cast, as they hid from the many threats in Warren house. The scary bits are telegraphed enough that you know roughly when something will appear, but not where it’ll appear. Annoyingly though, when we change perspectives there’s a tendency for Dauberman to trap people in impossible situations, and never show how they survive them. It’s a cheap trick that lets every set-piece pack a punch but means nobody ever feels in that much danger. However, in a roundabout way maybe this is part of the point.
Late on, someone says that all the evil in the house reminds them of all the good outside it. It’s a life-affirming idea that, to some extent, can be applied to the horror genre as a whole. Maybe part of the reason we like supernatural horror is its emphasis on evil as an elemental force reminds us that many of the bad things out there are really man-made. Of course, people are corrupted daily and will act in inexcusable ways – but our shared humanity means they may have the potential to be changed. Moreover, for all the darkness these films hinge upon there’s normally a light that can guide our characters out of it. Be it the love of other people, or another nicer spirit. In this way, The Conjuring Universe is inherently optimistic. So for these difficult times, I don’t mind seeing more.