Babysitting goes way wrong in this demon-stuffed spin-off showcase
At some point, every horror franchise becomes a comedy franchise. Repetitive rhythms of tension muddle shocking scares into crowd-pleasing familiarity. Not always a bad thing, really, and I have a soft spot for junky laterquels, titles modified with delicious word salad like Versus or In Space, ever-more-elaborate death scenes that invite a laugh track.
Annabelle Comes Home is only a little scary, and too religiously dedicated to its own ongoing cash-printing megafranchise for big laughs. But the best moments in this low-key domestic horror film have a tossed-off quality, like the whole production cycle was a fun weekend for everybody.
Surely, The Conjuring stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga must’ve enjoyed a couple cheerful afternoons filming their overextended cameos in this prequel-sequel. They’re prologuing as married paranormalists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga). It’s the 1970s — brown ties, floral wallpaper, records skipping, etc. — and they’re bringing demon doll Annabelle into their house. In a room full of nefarious totems, Ed sets the smirking toy right onto a rocking chair — as if he wants Annabelle to sit there seesawing, looking freaky as hell. Supposedly, every artifact in that room is somehow eeeeevil. So, like, what: Did Cain kill Abel with that rocking chair?
Necessary clarification: Annabelle isn’t a “demon doll,” she’s a “beacon for other spirits.” In Annabelle Comes Home, she’s a beacon for fresh IP, filling the Warren home with monstrosities witnessed just long enough to demand their own prequel. There’s the Ferryman, who puts coins over his victims’ eyes. There’s a haunted bridal gown, sadly not joined by five haunted bridesmaid dresses. There’s, um, a ghost werewolf, I think? Or maybe it’s fog in the shape of the wolf. Is that idea taken? It is now!
These shenanigans don’t bother the Warrens, who mostly depart the movie for another investigation. They leave their daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), behind for an overnight with diligent local teen Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). Like her mother, Judy sees dead people and has a knack for demonic containment. Despite its R rating, the most endearing thing about Annabelle Comes Home is that it’s nearly a kid-friendly Conjuring spin-off, a Goosebumps-y saga about the worst babysitting gig ever. The throwback charms are occasional and tangible: the stoned pizza delivery guy, two whole sequences built around the Milton Bradley game Feeley Meeley.
At her Catholic elementary school, Judy keeps seeing the decomposed specter of a holy man. That Catholic Priest Won’t Stop Following Me sounds like a devastating modern sort of horror movie, but Annabelle is devotedly old-fashioned in its fervent Christianity, believing in the forcefield-generating abilities of blessed crucifixes and chapel glass. The bigger plot problem is Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), a free spirit fascinated by the Warrens and their collection of underworld delights. Mary Ellen sets Annabelle free, which also unleashes various entities within chamber of horrors.
Writer-director Gary Dauberman scripted the first two Annabelles. This is his directorial debut, and he’s having fun mixtaping spooky concepts. I haven’t even mentioned the possessed samurai armor, nor the predictive TV set. There’s a playfulness in this pile-up of fear-factors, and you will weep for a chicken. Annabelle Comes Home suffers from terminal blandness, though, unable to develop any real terror. The kids are too all right, dutifully battling the hellscape. The different ghouls are hit-or-miss, and they start to feel like level bosses, each one appearing to briefly bother another teenager between bookending closeups of Annabelle grinning.
Among the young cast, only Sarife makes an impression. She’s the one performer who captures the sardonic, assured flavor of ’70s youth — think eerie-cool Jodie Foster in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, only surrounded by a bunch of squeaky-clean Jodie Fosters from Freaky Friday. Annabelle Comes Home delves into Daniela’s grief and Judy’s lonely-teen melancholy, sorrowful subplots that never connect emotionally. Meanwhile, Mary Ellen’s romancing a neighbor boy named Bob (Michael Cimino), a wacky subplot that could’ve been in one of those old telefilms Disney would replay every October.
The Conjuring has become one of the most unusual (and successful) cinematic universes, spinning the true-ish tales of the Warrens’ occult investigations into box office gold. Annabelle Comes Home suffers, I think, from a mercantile quality, the sense you’re watching multiple elevator pitches crammed into feature shape. There could be many more spin-offs in that artifact room — a real place, by the way, visited by my colleague Clark Collis in 2013. But you worry this franchise machinery is getting creaky from overuse, like a beloved old chair that can now only hold the weight of one tiny doll.
Speaking of which, a very minor spoiler alert: The rocking chair doesn’t kill anybody in Annabelle Comes Home. They must be saving the good stuff for Rocking Chair: Origins. C+