A semi-sequel to the Conjuring films and a direct sequel to Annabelle – in the head-scratching, over-convoluted chronology of the James Wan-produced Conjuring universe, Annabelle appeared up in movie theaters before Annabelle: Creation (even evil dolls deserve origin stories, apparently) – Annabelle: Creation covered related key, mythology-expanding events that unfolded before Annabelle (making it a prequel to a prequel). Annabelle Comes Home finds the super-creepy doll (and demonic conduit) with the rictus smile and unblinking blue eyes front-and-center again, this time terrorizing Ed and Lorraine Warren’s (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) preteen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her ultra-competent babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and Mary Ellen’s oddly death-obsessed best friend (forever), Daniela Rios (Katie Sarife) over the course of a single, inexplicably foggy night. Annabelle Comes Home delivers everything audiences loyal to the Conjuring universe have come to expect, up to and including the obligatory slow-build, slow-burn scenes punctuated by the appearance of a ghostly apparition, occasional jump scares (earned and unearned), and the periodic injection of cathartic humor to offset the potential grimness of the proceedings.
Set roughly pre- and post-prologue during The Conjuring, Annabelle Comes Home plays an old-school game of “psych” with the audience by initially focusing on Ed and Lorraine Warren as they scoop up Annabelle from her currently freaked-out owners and promptly deposit said haunted doll in their supposedly ultra-secure forbidden room of cursed and haunted objects (a room that’s conveniently located in the basement). When supernatural duty of an unspecified kind calls, Ed and Lorraine rush off moments later, tapping their friendly neighborhood babysitter, Mary Ellen, to watch over Judy for what turns out to be an incredibly long, event-filled night. A morose, introspective preteen, Judy faces ostracism at her Catholic elementary school for her parents’ public lives as demon hunters. She’s bullied and otherwise ignored, but it’s obvious early on, she shares her mother’s “gift” for seeing dead people, including a recently deceased priest who lingers in the school’s playground and on the school’s steps. (Nothing creepy about an elderly priest obsessively watching children, of course.). Only Mary Ellen shows Judy any kind of affection or interest and she’s not even part of Judy’s peer group.
A quiet, uneventful afternoon takes a turn when Mary Ellen’s friend, Daniela, shows up uninvited with roller skates as a birthday present for Judy. Daniela – who just as easily could have been named Pandora given her story function in Annabelle Comes Home (that would have been slightly too on-the-nose for this series, though) – slips into the basement when Mary Ellen and Judy are otherwise preoccupied. She’s looking for something, anything, that will confirms existence of the afterlife, thus helping her process a recent, tragic loss in her immediate family. Instead, she inadvertently frees Annabelle from her glass prison and, in turn, freeing or activating the other, long-dormant cursed objects back to supernatural life. In A not-completely necessary subplot involving Mary Ellen’s once and future boyfriend, Bob Palmeri (Michael Cimino), and his decision to “woo” Mary Ellen via song, exists primarily as comic relief. While Mary Ellen quickly emerges as super-resourceful, calm and cool under supernatural attack, Daniela unravels from those same supernatural forces, Bob melts into a puddle of fear, hyperventilating himself into near unconsciousness once he, like Mary Ellen, Daniela, and Judy, realizes that all is not right with the Warren household.
Written and directed by long-time Conjuring scribe Gary Dauberman (making his directorial debut here), Annabelle Comes Home supplies a not unsatisfactory mix of thrills, chills, and frights, plus a game cast helping to ground otherwise absurd, logic-defying events in a recognizable reality not far from our own. Each supernatural set piece tends to be as well or better calibrated than the last, a sure sign Dauberman has internalized lessons learned working with and under James Wan, all the while sneakily setting up and introducing not one, not two, but four other potential spin-offs (a bride in a cursed dress, a myth-inspired ferryman, an ancient, television set, and a werewolf-like demon) in the ever-expanding Conjuring universe (the last spinoff, The Nun, will get a sequel too, of course). Of the four, two promise solid scares and potential world building, the third offers limited possibilities, while the fourth suffers from an unexpected paucity of imagination and a rare, ill-thought-out misstep in relying on CGI for scares where practical effects, one of the key pillars to the commercial success of the Conjuring universe, would have been the better, smarter choice. (Note to current and prospective horror filmmakers: “Never, ever go full CGI. Never. That way lies scare-free, Goosebumps-like territory.”)