Marvel and Star Wars delivered the biggest event movies of the past decade, but “The Conjuring” franchise has churned along with more confidence and consistency than either of them. James Wan’s 2013 entry set the template in motion, with real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) providing a backdrop for endless jump scares. Having grossed upwards of $1.6 billion, “The Conjuring” universe has proven that sometimes, the most lucrative ideas require less CGI wizardry than spooky silence, and the lingering possibility that something terrifying could break it.
Well, that, and one helluva spooky doll. Annabelle, one of several horror tropes laying within the Warrens’ cabinet of paranormal monstrosities, showed the potential to carry her own creepy spin-off from the very first scene of “The Conjuring.” With “Annabelle” and prequel “Annabelle: Creation,” the stationary figure became a gateway for demonic forces seeking the souls of young children. (And, unlike Chucky, Annabelle doesn’t have to move one bit to remain an object of constant dread.) “Annabelle Comes Home” delivers on its title with the best “Conjuring” spin-off so far, in large part because it has such modest aims.
Unlike the two-hour-plus “Conjuring” movies or the sprawling convent showdowns of “The Nun,” the new movie basically jams the archetypes of a John Hughes teen comedy into a minimalist haunted house scenario. While that’s not enough to suppress the underlying gimmickry of the storytelling, “Annabelle Comes Home” at least manages to charm and frighten its way through the purest distillation of the “Conjuring” formula to date. It’s not the scariest “Conjuring” movie, but just scary enough to advance the series and expand its reach.
Ed and Lorraine resurface at the movie’s start, picking up the doll from the mortified people who it haunted in prior installments, but their fleeting appearance mainly serves to advance Annabelle’s lore: A spooky encounter with cemetery ghosts (and one bloody car-crash victim) reveals that Annabelle herself isn’t haunted; instead, the doll serves as a beacon for other spirits. That tidbit provides enough information for the ensuing mayhem when Annabelle is liberated from the Warrens’ cabinet later on, unleashing various other demonic spirits trapped within their home.
But Ed and Lorraine aren’t around to deal with it. Instead, “Annabelle Comes Home” revolves around their ostracized middle-school daughter Judy (McKenna Grace), her teen babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and Mary Ellen’s pal Daniela (Katie Sarife). When the Warrens leave town for an overnight trip, Mary Ellen’s tasked with caring for Judy, and troublemaker Daniela tags along with a hidden agenda. Keen on getting inside the Warren’s artifact room to interact with her dead dad’s spirit, Daniela’s troublemaking ultimately leads to a range of ghostly threats overtaking the small suburban home over the course of a foggy night. It’s the ideal minimalist template for numerous creepy moments, and because it’s set in the 1980’s, not even a cell phone can help these girls out of their bewitched jam.
“Annabelle Comes Home” marks the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, whose screenwriting credits include “The Nun” as well as the recent “It” adaptation and its upcoming second installment. That makes him well-positioned to introduce the first teen-centric installment of “The Conjuring” universe, and he’s reasonably attentive to his characters before turning up the usual scares. Judy’s troubled social life, the result of cynical reports about her parents’ profession, introduces fresh emotional depth to the story; likewise, Daniela’s grief over her father’s premature death adds a degree of personal drama to a series that usually revolves around larger supernatural stakes.
Of course, once Daniela sneaks into the artifact room and lets Annabelle out to play, the movie becomes a lengthy pileup of eerie sightings, sudden locked doors, whispering voices, and other dreadful things. As usual, someone eventually figures out the main threat in play, and what must be done to contain it. None of these movies have ever managed to conclude their stories as well as they establish a gradual accumulation of spooky forces, but “Annabelle Comes Home” leans into its main strengths.
More William Castle than Val Lewton in its approach, the movie embraces the opportunity for spine-tingling apparitions at every turn, from the use of a “grab box” game that turns dangerous to ghostly figures with coins over their eyes roaming the hallways, and a knife-wielding bride that pops up at the most inconvenient moments. These aren’t mortifying concepts so much as ephemeral jolts, fun to experience and just as easy to shrug off.
But Dauberman’s script balances this familiarity with a handful of appealing subplots, including Mary Ellen’s cutesy suitor Bob (Michael Cimino), who shows up to serenade his classmate at the worst possible moment, and Daniela’s grieving process, both of which come to a head as the group bands together to contain Annabelle once more. The movie joins “It” and “Stranger Things” as the latest resurrection of the ‘80s-kids-in-peril routine, and it’s not exactly aiming to reinvent the genre. Still, it’s something of a relief that the movie pushes beyond the usual self-seriousness of these movies to allow for a more colorful array of characters and some modicum of humor surrounding their plight.
That being said, nothing in “Annabelle Comes Home” matches the genuine inventiveness of more visionary home invasion sagas, from Jordan Peele’s “Us” to “You’re Next” or “Funny Games,” all of which center around similar terrors and fire off in unpredictable directions. In “Annabelle Comes Home,” as with its precedents, the jump scares are the main endpoint; everything else exists to prop them up. But “The Conjuring” movies make an effort to care about their characters before terrifying them every which way, and “Annabelle Comes Home” gives them ample reasons to be terrified.
That’s enough to carry the movie along its spooky-silly wavelength, and reveals the essence of the commercial coup in play. With yet another “Conjuring” installment and a “Nun” sequel on the way, it’s safe to say that audiences will keep getting more variations on this routine until ghosts somehow cease to be scary, or jump scares simply don’t work. Until then, “Annabelle Comes Home” is proof that some scare tactics don’t need much dolling up to do the trick.
Warner Bros. opens “Annabelle Comes Home” nationwide on Wednesday, June 26.