Dir: Gary Dauberman
I haven’t followed The Conjuring universe. I saw the first film largely on the strength of a cast that was more interesting than that of most modern ghost stories, with great character actors like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and Lili Taylor. That film was fine, lifted by its performances and better than average direction from James Wan, but it was at heart still just the standard issue haunting movie. I saw little reason to give the sequels or spinoffs any of my time. That said, I’m trying to write more, trying to cover more mainstream cinema and as a horror fan I feel I should try to get something out of both the biggest contemporary horror franchise and a subgenre that I generally don’t enjoy. This wasn’t the film to win me over to either.
As the film begins, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson and Farmiga in brief cameos) are taking Annabelle, a doll possessed by an evil spirit, home with them to be kept where they can keep it from harming anybody. A year later, the Warrens are going out of town and leaving babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to spend the night watching their 11 year old daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace). Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) also comes over and, curious about the room where the Warrens keep their occult artefacts, accidentally unleashes Annabelle, which also frees many other ghosts and other entities.
This isn’t a bad premise. As I understand, each of the Conjuring spinoff films so far has largely focused on a single ghostly or otherwise demonic figure, so unleashing them all together in Ed and Lorraine Warren’s house has promise. Unfortunately the film does almost nothing with this idea. Far from reinventing the wheel, it simply rolls out as many wheels as it can, before proceeding to spin them for an hour.
Annabelle Comes Home is an extremely competent film. Mckenna Grace builds on good performances in the likes of Gifted and I, Tonya with equally solid work here while Madison Iseman, funny as the vain Bethany in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, is about as effective as she could possibly be in a role that increasingly asks no more of her than wandering around slowly and looking scared. Katie Sarife’s role as Danielle, though only third lead, has a bit more of an emotional component to it, and she does well with that. Equally, the cinematography, if overly dark at times, is generally decent and writer/director Gary Dauberman, making his debut behind the camera after handling writing duties for many of the other films in the franchise, does a solidly decent job, ticking his way through the list of expected elements without making any terrible mistakes. The problem is that while there’s nothing, bar the thin screenplay, that stands out as notably bad, there is also little that makes you sit up and take notice. One sequence of shots in the middle of the film, revealing progressive forms of Annabelle in silhouette as the various colours of Judy’s bedside lamp shine on her in turn, looks very cool indeed and is genuinely creepy. That is perhaps 30 seconds of screen time, and it’s the only notably interesting image or series of images in the film. One other recurring image, involving a TV, does threaten to be interesting but Dauberman uses the device too often, so by the time the twist on how it has previously been used comes, you’re way ahead of the film on that too.
The rest of Annabelle Comes Home is paint by numbers filmmaking. It’s all creaky doors and floors, torches being shone in dark corners (before going out at a key moment because we can’t miss one of the points on the list of cliches), shots of empty spaces when you expect a scare and then, of course, shots back for the boo scare. Often, this is less a film than it is a pop up book, with some omniscient hand opening the flaps to scare you, and it’s just as grindingly predictable as that sounds both in terms of its content and its timing. If this is what you want from your horror, then the film will likely prove satisfying enough, if incredibly familiar, but these tricks have seldom worked for me even when they are done brilliantly. Annabelle Comes Home is, at its infrequent best, workmanlike. It generates no atmosphere, there’s no real threat from any of the various entities in the film, any actual peril or injury is undercut within seconds so the film - while there is sometimes a little apprehension as we tense for the next noise or jump scare - is never actually scary. If this represents what's popular in modern horror, I might just stick with the independent scene.