Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

JUNE 26, 2019


I was in the very small minority of folks who preferred the original Annabelle to the sequel, but so far everyone I've talked to seems to agree with my sentiment that Annabelle Comes Home is the best of the trio (and thus, the best Conjuring spinoff of them all). Screenwriter Gary Dauberman directed this one himself after writing the previous installments, and I couldn't help but smile that he gave himself the best script to work from; assuming the film makes the same big money the other two did, I wonder if the other directors will be annoyed he never wrote compelling leads and some genuine fun ideas for THEIR entries.

He also got Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga to come back as the Warrens, something that has been limited to reused footage for the others. They're not in it all that much - basically just the first ten and last five minutes - but it gives it that extra bit of validity, and also allows the film to focus on someone we "know", which the other two entries didn't benefit from. In this case, it's their daughter Judy, who is played by a new actress (McKenna Grace from Hill House - she was the young Theo), and it's the rare instance where a recasting pays off narratively, at least for me. Because I couldn't remember how old their daughter was but in my mind she was like five or six, so I spent the whole movie thinking that they recast for money/availability reasons and that it took place after Conjuring 2, a movie that, like the first, I've only seen once and can't remember too many specifics about.

But nope! Turns out the reason the girl was recast was because she needed to be younger, as this actually takes place immediately after the first Conjuring and the original actress would be about 15-16 now. See, I forgot that Conjuring 2 took place like six years after the first, mis-remembering the two films being fairly close to each other in time. So when this one starts with the Warrens collecting Annabelle and bringing her home (i.e. the beginning of the first Conjuring movie), followed by a "six months later" text, I truly thought they were saying "after Conjuring 2". Long story short, every now and then, having a fading memory re: sequel continuity can be a blessing! For all I knew the movie could end with Judy being killed, setting up Conjuring 3!

Still, even if you know she survives, pitting her against the various demons and ghosts from the series in the backdrop of her own home gives the movie more punch than its disconnected predecessors were allowed. The compact timeframe helps too, as the majority of the movie unfolds during one evening, when the Warrens go out of town for an overnight trip (if their journey was an Easter Egg of some sort, I missed it) and leave Judy at home with her babysitter/only friend Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen's bestie Daniela catches wind of her plans and, having an interest in the Warrens (who are in the news as being potential frauds, something that has made Judy an outcast at school), invites herself over to poke around.

And this is where the movie turns into something more interesting than expected. Daniela just seems like the rando who has to set the plot in motion with her meddling (since Judy and Mary Ellen are smart enough not to touch the creepy stuff), but she's got a legit reason for wanting to "make contact": her father was recently killed in a car crash that she blames herself for (she was driving), and she is hoping the Warrens' room full of haunted artifacts will provide her with a way of telling him that she is sorry. Sure, she screws up and the result is a bunch of haunted house/ghost movie scares that a veteran like myself can see coming long before the "BOO!" moment, but the fact that there was a legit and even fairly sad reason for it happening, as opposed to the usual "Oh you have a Ouija board let's try to talk to a ghost!" kinda nonsense, made it more compelling and elevated it above its teen horror peers.

In turn, it made the cliche stuff easier to forgive, because on occasion, Daniela does indeed see her father, but it's the demons messing with her (one such instance provides the movie with its best jolt, in fact) which isn't helping her already rattled mind. Judy's plight is also more interesting than that of her spinoff brethren (including Nun and La Llorona) because she's coming to grips with the fact that this might be closer to her ongoing reality than some isolated incident - it's not a single entity that someone might help her remove for good, it's something her parents brought there by choice! Plus, she is starting to pick up her mother's ability to see ghosts, but she just wants to be a normal kid - her face lights up (for the first time in the movie, maybe?) when Daniela brings over some roller skates, and she is fretting about her upcoming birthday party as it seems her parents' day job and her own demeanor has resulted in a lot of "Sorry I can't make it" replies (at one point she invites Daniela, who she just met, and you can tell Daniela realizes she might be cutting the guest count in half if she says no). So many haunted house movies are of the "We just moved in and things are weird, I wanna go back home" variety - it's interesting to see one more or less from the eyes of a girl who has lived there for years and knows the root of the haunting is sort of her heritage.

As for the babysitter, she doesn't have much of a direct tie to the ghosty stuff - there's some half-hearted "Oh that ghost looks exactly like you" kinda stuff (said specter is a bride who was buried with coins over her eyes for the Ferryman) but nothing really comes of it, and her role is primarily answering phantom doorbell rings and saving one of the two girls whenever necessary. And if you're wondering why they simply don't leave, it's because there's a werewolf outside! In one of the film's smarter moves, the Annabelle doll isn't really the main source for scare moments - she "gets out" of her glass case (as before, she doesn't move on her own, but is manipulated by demons/spirits) and her role as a conduit means all the other things around start using her power to break free of their own confinements. She has to be put back to calm everything down, but it's easier said than done when so many things - including the aforementioned werewolf - are already on the prowl.

It's a shame that they didn't tighten the edit some, though. There's a real funhouse kind of vibe to the third act as one thing after another sets itself upon our trio of young women, but it takes a while to get there (even the Warrens themselves get an extended scare scene of no real consequence, though does add to Farmiga and Wilson's limited screentime), leaving the movie 10-15 min longer than it needed to be. I also wish they did something to justify their R rating - the MPAA chalked it up to "horror violence and terror" but apart from a quick (and hallucinated) stabbing, there's nothing in here to warrant the higher rating, which is a letdown when you are throwing werewolves and some kind of demonic Samurai into the mix (not to mention a potential easy kill in the form of a pizza delivery guy, but he gets to leave without as much as a "is someone there?" kind of bit). I assume at this point, since every Conjuring-verse movie has been R, that they won't do a PG-13 one in fear that it'd look like they had "sold out" or toned things down, but I'm not sure if that's really better than making a legit PG-13 movie (which there isn't anything wrong with!) and calling it R. Kind of like putting O'Douls in a real beer bottle, innit?

Still, far more of it worked than not, and it felt like a real movie as opposed to a scare machine like its predecessor, where I actually DID see it twice and still couldn't tell you much about any of its characters, and often wondered if we looked hard enough that we might see the producer with a stopwatch making sure that there was another jump every five minutes. By smartly moving away from the doll as much as possible and giving the characters (well, two of them) some genuine drama to deal with over the course of the evening, it felt fresh and engaging in ways most prequels never quite manage, even if at the end of the day a lot of it doesn't really stray from status quo. The occasional humor (Wilson in particular is going full Mike Brady) and unexpected melancholy moments - I legit teared up at a scene between Daniella and Lorraine! - safely elevate it above the others in this unusual spinoff franchise, and have me excited again for the third Conjuring after so many underwhelming spinoffs in between kind of diluted the brand a bit (though again, I seem to be in the minority - The Nun actually outgrossed even the Conjuring entries!). Bonus, I kind of love that you can go to a multiplex right now and see TWO evil doll movies (no Toy Story 4 jokes, please), something that I'm not sure has ever been the case. What a time to be alive!

What say you?

P.S. No post-credits scenes, but stick around for the full-screen titles! They're over-stylized and done up like '70s movies - loved em!


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