When you hit the seventh installment of a series, you’re either scraping the bottom of the barrel or hitting your stride. What began with co-writers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes and director James Wan in 2013’s The Conjuring is only beginning to ramp up with Annabelle Comes Home. It’s a razor sharp, tension-filled psychological thriller whose best weapon is the way it teases its audience with scares and violence, even if any rarely comes. That’s what makes it memorable. That’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes audiences want to come back for more.
While famous demonologist husband-and-wife team Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) head out of town on an over-night job, daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) is watched over by teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). The two have a fun evening planned of birthday cake and games. When Mary’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) joins in unsolicited, the two girls are initially wary but eventually allow Daniela to stay. Even the best of intentions can result in pain and despair as Daniela’s curiosity over the Warren’s occult collection accidentally unleashes a terrible evil connected to the doll Annabelle.
There are certain expectations for a movie like Annabelle Comes Home: no deep philosophical undertones, no awards-worthy performances, no high-intellect choices from the characters, just a fright factory of endless torment from beginning to end. Impressively, Home defies expectations in several ways, beginning with its approach to storytelling. Based off of a story by Wan, director Gary Dauberman developed a screenplay which not only acknowledges the roots of The Conjuring universe, but also plays as its own story. Within the first few moments, the audience is introduced to the Warrens and Annabelle, given a perfect summation of the doll’s relationship with demonic spirits, and a sense of how comfortable the Warrens are with the occult. All of this seamlessly sets up everything to come later. By making the on-boarding process quick and efficient, old fans of the series don’t have to worry about a lengthy rehashing and new fans don’t get an exposition dump. In fact, one of the best examples of how Home functions comes at the beginning when the Warrens’ car stops in front of a cemetery. As an audience, we expect trouble to come. It’s just that kind of movie where anything involving the dead is likely to mean bad news for someone. At first, Dauberman plays with that expectation, creating several moments of incredible anticipation where tension builds because audiences have been trained over the years where to look for the scare. But then nothing plays out as forecast. This happens again and again throughout the film to varying degrees of terror.
In concert with the cinematography from Michael Burgess (The Curse of La Llorona) and production design from Jennifer Spence (Shazam!), danger emanates from the one place a child never wants it to flow, their home. This is best exemplified by a scene where Mary leaves Judy’s room, the colors of Judy’s electric pinwheel billowing into the hallway, and walks downstairs. Through thoughtful set design from Spence and a simple tilt of the camera from Dauberman, the Warren house is visually split into thirds, positioning Mary as completely on her own, even if she’s not by herself in the house. Later, as various supernatural creatures begin to prey on the three girls, Dauberman rarely lets the terrors get in full view of the camera. Sometimes it’s just a form floating past a window into a mirror and out into a hall, caught in one fluid motion of the camera, or a barely perceptible figure just on the outskirts of the field of vision so that, for just a moment, the audience has a thought of “did I just see that..?” before focusing back on the film. The continued use of misplaced expectations, deft direction, and weaponized set design make Home far more enjoyable than one might expect. None of this will stop anyone watching from screaming at the characters for their seeming rampant stupidity, but at least Dauberman and Wan have several clever answers within the text of the film for whatever gets slung in the characters’ direction.
Audiences come to a film like Annabelle Comes Home as much for the characters they know as for the one they don’t. You may be pleased to know that the featurettes dig into both sides of those interests. In “The Light & the Love,” Wilson and Farmiga discuss their history with the Conjuring series of films, as well as offer a few glimpses of their behind the scenes antics. For fans who’ve wondered about the Warrens’ artifact room, the featurette “The Artifact Room & the Occult” is where you want to go. Evidently Home is not the first time audiences have gotten a peak at the Warrens’ collection (this was the first film this reviewer has seen in the series), but this is the first time we’ve gotten to spend any real time within it poking around. This created an incredible opportunity to both explore creatures that were already introduced as well as lay the groundwork for the future. If you’ve been with this series since the beginning, this particular featurette will feel like striking gold. The three-part featurette “Behind the Scenes” offers a look at the performers bringing the various creatures to life, as well as provides insight into why Dauberman included them. Considering that Annabelle is the central tormentor with four other creatures taking on the more physical aspects of haunting the three girls, giving the other artifacts some spotlight in the bonus features is a nice touch. Where it comes to make-up, applications, and other aspects of character design, in particular, there’s clearly more going on with each being than what the audience learns via various exposition dumps. This trio of featurettes helps fill those gaps.
Even as a seventh installment in a greater series, Annabelle Comes Home is very much a standalone adventure. Though it hinges on a character introduced in previous films, nothing about Home relies on that prior knowledge. Instead, Home builds itself around that character, Annabelle, and uses the wealth of occult objects teased or hinted at in previous outings as the narrative linchpin. Grace, Iseman, and Sarife take on the lead roles and they’re rather fun to watch. Though the characters make the kinds of mistakes you expect from teens, they also make the kinds of mistakes the genre requires (again, hat tip to Wan and Dauberman for their clever plot devices).It’d be fun to see what these three survive next. As mentioned by Wan and Dauberman in “The Artifact Room & the Occult,” the contents of the Warrens’ artifact room could very well serve as the basis for future stories as it is so overloaded with objects. While the possibilities of this are endless, Annabelle Comes Home feels like a complete adventure.
Annabelle Comes Home Blu-ray Combo Pack Special Features
- Deleted Scenes
- The Artifact Room & the Occult
- The Light & the Love
- Behind the Scenes: The Ferryman/Demon, The Bloody Bride, The Werewolf
Available on digital beginning September 17th, 2019.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning October 8th, 2019.
Final (Film) Score: 3.5 out of 5.