It’s creepy doll season at the cineplex. With a Child’s Play reboot, a ventriloquist dummy-populated Toy Story 4, and now a new Annabelle sequel all coming out within the same two weeks, something is certainly up. I don’t know about you, but I won’t be visiting my local toy store anytime soon. As the third installment in the Annabelle series, and the seventh film in the Conjuring franchise overall, Annabelle Comes Home is mostly on the same level as its recent haunted doll predecessor, but like all of the spin-offs, pales in comparison to the two great Conjuring films.
Annabelle was first introduced in the intro to James Wan’s hugely-successful original film The Conjuring in 2013, one of the few new genuine horror classics of our modern era, and some of the most fertile franchise fodder Hollywood could ask for. Based on real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators and husband-and-wife managed to successfully cleanse a demon-filled farmhouse in one of the most famous cases of their career, but the unsettling doll featured in the intro proved to be a favorite scene among audiences worldwide.
The toy also thrilled viewers later in the movie, where she wreaked havoc on the Warrens’ home and daughter while they were away on a case. Thanks to the disturbing doll’s popularity, she earned her own film in 2014’s Annabelle. Directed by John R. Leonetti, the movie was a commercial hit, but a flop with critics, featuring lifeless characters, and cheap, infrequent scares. In 2017, the haunted artifact earned her own origin story in David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation, which was underwhelming, but represents the best of the Conjuring spin-offs to date.
And now two years later, the spooky doll is back again in her third film: Annabelle Comes Home. Since the original Annabelle, there has also been The Conjuring 2, The Nun and The Curse of La Llarona, but Annabelle wasn’t very involved, so they’re not really relevant here. While 2014’s Annabelle and 2017’s Creation served as prequels to The Conjuring, this year’s Annabelle Comes Home is the first of her series to take place after the events of that original film. The sequel is also the first of the spin-offs to boast appearances from Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are long overdue.
Similar to the iconic intro to The Conjuring, Annabelle Comes Home opens again on our first-ever meeting with the doll, when the Warrens pay a house call to a pair of nurses who have been terrorized by the doll’s demonic forces. For protection, the Warrens whisk her away to Connecticut, and on the way the clairvoyant Lorraine experiences Annabelle’s powerful ability to act like a beacon for paranormal entities. Once back home, Ed and Lorraine lock the toy in a sacred glass case in their artifacts room, and have it blessed by a priest to keep the evil contained.
Years later, the Warrens are headed out of town for an investigation, so they arrange for a local teenage girl, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to babysit their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace). Due to the couple’s unusual choice in occupation, they have quite the reputation in their local community. So when Mary Ellen tells her friend Katie (Daniela Rios) that she’ll be spending the night at the Warrens’, it arouses her curiosity. That night she devises a way to come over and sneak into the Warrens’ artifacts room, where she finds a mysterious doll locked in a glass case.
Despite all warnings (Positively Do Not Open!), Katie’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she unleashes all sorts of dark forces on the house thanks to Annabelle’s abilities to incite the supernatural. The hours that follow are a night of horrors for the three girls, as well as a local teenage boy (Michael Cimino). What amounts to a grab-bag of scares rains down upon the poor kids, as anything and everything is fair game, with cameos from other Conjuring entities such as La Llarona showing up, as well as a hellhound presumably from the upcoming Conjuring 3.
Conceptually, it’s all a little too-loose, as the film mainly consists of the characters bumbling their way around the house during the night and being terrorized by whatever paranormal entity the filmmakers see fit to seize the spotlight in a given moment. It’s the directorial debut for Gary Dauberman, who up until now has spent much of his time in Hollywood as a writer for the Annabelle series. Dauberman again serves here as a screenwriter, but unfortunately lacks the directing chops to stage effective atmospherics, and relies extensively on lazy jump-scares.
There are a few moments of genuine creativity, though, such as when Katie is locked in the artifacts room and interacts with a haunted television set. The screen pictures her just a moment in the future, suggesting frightening events just about to happen. This could have served for some intense simulated terror, as priming the viewer for a scare could make it exponentially that much worse when it actually happens. Unfortunately though, Dauberman’s style is quite tame, and the scene often changes before the characters are pictured enduring anything too horrific.
The film is also much too-close to an identical subplot from The Conjuring, where basically all of the same events happen to Judy as a younger child. The advantage here, however, is that Judy has gotten older, and a closer focus is given to explore the challenging life of a child growing up with demonologist parents. Also effective is Katie’s situation in grieving her late father, as she blames herself for a fatal car accident. As far as scares go, Annabelle Comes Home is inferior to 2017’s Creation, but the higher level of storytelling just might make it worth your time.