Evil dolls are apparently all the rage this season, as “Annabelle Comes Home” is the third to hit theaters this month. True, one of those three is an animated Pixar flick with a much more positive attitude and cheery tone, but it’s still unusual timing to have three films about sentient playthings all released in such short succession.
Much like the doll herself, “Annabelle Comes Home” serves as something of a conduit. She was first introduced in the opening scenes of “The Conjuring” in 2013 as Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) meet with a pair of nurses who have run afoul of the evil spirit and the doll she manipulates. The previous two “Annabelle” films unlocked her past, showing where she came from. But “Annabelle Comes Home” tells the story of what happened after the Warrens took her home and locked her in a glass cabinet in the artifacts room they kept in their basement.
One year later, the demonologists leave their 10-year-old daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) home with a babysitter while they go off to work overnight. Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) is that model type of babysitter that puts all her attention on the children in her care. She doesn’t spend the evening putting the kid in front of the TV while she talks on the phone all night or have boys over much like the babysitters of yore. Mary Ellen even tries to say no to her persistent friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) until there is teenage-variety blackmail involved.
Judy Warren has only appeared briefly in previous films. When Lorraine was off in London dealing with the Enfield Poltergeist, she had visions of a demonic spirit threatening her daughter. This is the first time the story has made Judy a main character. And young Judy has inherited her mother’s gift for communing with spirits. Between the fear of her unwelcome visions and the growing infamy of her parents and their work, it’s a lot for a fifth grader to handle.
Mckenna Grace is the ideal Judy Warren. She has an otherworldly quality that blends innocence with a deep sense of understanding evil. “Annabelle Comes Home” is, at its core, a haunted house movie. But everything centers around Judy and her ability to use the lessons she has learned from watching her parents, even when they didn’t know she was.
Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife find themselves in somewhat generic roles. The type where any number of young ladies could have played them. The good news is that they do a lot with their characters. The performances feel natural and believable. It’s easy to laugh with them, to be worried for them, and to care what happens to them.
Sarife’s Daniela, in particular, has an interesting arc. She is the catalyst that unleashes the demon when her curiosity and a recent tragedy lead her into the Warrens’ artifact room. Daniela is searching for something she truly feels she needs, and its hard to fault a naive teenager completely. After all, this story takes place in the 1970s when most of our haunted house films haven’t existed yet. It’s easy to judge what a character “should” do when we’ve had decades of watching them all get it wrong.
For Iseman’s Mary Ellen, her story is much more typical with her crush on Bob (Michael Cimino), a boy who lives across the street from the Warrens. His place in the story is fairly minor, but just like the perfect guy, he seems to turn up at precisely the right time for maximum comic and horror relief.
“The Conjuring” films worked because they were about the people first. James Wan drew audiences into this world through the strong, devoted relationship between Ed and Lorraine Warren. He also took time to properly introduce the families haunted by their respective terrors. We knew the parents and the kids, and we cared about getting through them out all right. Those two films also understood that true horror gets under your skin. The mood and the impending sense of doom are what truly terrify.
The spin-off films haven’t always been as successful, because they rely more on the immediate “jump scares” to startle the audience. Those jolts of adrenaline mimic fear, and can make for an entertaining experience, but are they sustainable? That isn’t a yes or no question. Jump scares work for some people and not for others.
Where “Annabelle Comes Home” surpasses the other “Annabelle” films, “The Nun,” and “The Curse of La Llorona,” is that it uses both. Gary Dauberman makes his directorial debut this time around, but he has written most of the films in the franchise. As director and screenwriter, he’s good at building tension. Focusing on one character over another, incorporating another strong score from Joseph Bishara, and captivating cinematography from Michael Burgess, all the elements come together to make this a familiar haunted house story that has an extra level of skill behind it.
Taking time to explore the Warrens’ files and their artifact room also reveals a glimpse of the possibility of further expansion of the universe. Audiences meet other entities that could make their own intriguing stories, but they are introduced in a brilliant way that feels more immediate than a simple set up for a future film.
“Annabelle Comes Home” is an entertaining movie for fans of the genre and especially fans of “The Conjuring” universe. This isn’t a groundbreaking horror film and it likely won’t be named the best of the year. But Dauberman and his crew know what they have and avoid trying to make it something it isn’t. And Mckenna Grace adds another performance that makes her one of the most intriguing young actors working today.