Eight films in, and the Conjuring franchise is holding up pretty well. By way of comparison, Friday The 13th Part VIII saw Jason taking Manhattan, and the less said about the eighth Halloween movie, the better. Of course, it helps that the films spawned from James Wan’s 2013 haunted-house chiller have spun off in different directions. With Annabelle Comes Home, the creepy-doll-centric side franchise officially surpasses the main Conjuring continuity. (This is the third Annabelle movie; the third Conjuring movie is still in production.)
Annabelle Comes Home is a teen horror movie done Conjuring-style, complete with a babysitter, a bully, a burnout pizza guy, and a cute boy who works at the local supermarket coming around for an ill-timed Say Anything moment. The film opens with a segment that finds demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) escorting the titular doll through a soupy fog filthy with the undead. But although the Warrens are cooler than most horror-movie parents, they’re just as absent. Once the cursed doll is safely deposited behind chapel glass in their supernatural trophy room, Ed and Lorraine are off on another ghost-hunting mission, leaving their preteen daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) alone with babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) for the majority of Annabelle Comes Home’s running time.
Judy and Mary Ellen are used to the hyper-Catholic head trip that is life in the Warren household; pale, solemn Judy even shares her mother’s gift of second sight, as she confides in Mary Ellen after having a vision of a ghostly priest at school. (In a bit of spooky-girl foreshadowing, Mary Ellen reassures her that ghosts are just dead people, and if most people are good, then by extension most ghosts must be good, too.) But Mary Ellen’s best friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), who’s been understandably obsessed with death ever since her father was killed in a car accident, is fascinated by the place—particularly the locked room where the Warrens store all their most dangerous artifacts. And once we’ve panned over all the ’70s floral wallpaper and Mary Ellen has played Badfinger’s “Day After Day” twice, someone must put the plot into motion. So Daniela sneaks into the forbidden area to snoop around while Judy and Mary Ellen are busy roller skating, freeing Annabelle and activating all the other cursed objects in the process.
Once the haunted clock has been wound—along with the haunted TV, the haunted tape recorder, and the haunted board game—director Gary Dauberman allows the suspense to keep on ticking with predictable but effective regularity, an approach similar to last year’s Indonesian haunted-house throwback Satan’s Slaves. If that film is a carnival ride, then Annabelle Comes Home is a cover band playing a greatest-hits set: It offers all the familiar Conjuring beats, both in terms of the spirits that haunt the girls throughout the night and the filmmaking tricks Dauberman—who wrote all three Annabelle movies, as well as The Nun, before making his directorial debut here—uses to squeeze as much fright out of them as possible.
Some of the apparitions in Annabelle Comes Home appeared as set dressing in the original Conjuring, like the haunted samurai armor that echoes with the screams of its previous owner’s victims. Others are new, like the vaporous werewolf and the cursed bridal gown that roams the hallways of the Warrens’ midcentury split-level in search of a wearer. (As with most things Ed and Lorraine Warren, the items in their real-life “Occult Museum,” including a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide and a “Satanic” jar of Grey Poupon, are underwhelming by comparison.) All of these creatures are rolled out one by one—and, later on when things get really intense, all at once—like floats in a mischievous parade, backed by disembodied whisperings from beyond and low, rumbling bass notes on the soundtrack so you know exactly when it’s time to get scared.
Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t reinvent the haunted-house movie, nor does it give real human dimension to either Daniela’s grief or Judy’s loneliness. And frankly, it doesn’t seem to be interested in doing either of those things. Its priorities lie elsewhere, namely in creating something fun and suspenseful, with at least one giggly, effective jump scare. And for the most part, it works. True, the haunted objects are silly at times, but unlike The Nun, Annabelle Comes Home is only funny when it’s supposed to be. And it’s enjoyable because of its clockwork efficiency, not in spite of it.