Written and directed by Gary Dauberman
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and Mckenna Grace
Running time 1 hour and 46 minutes
MPAA rating: R for horror violence and terror
by Allison Yakulis
The observation that ‘there are no new stories/songs/ideas, that nothing is truly original, that everything is derivative to at least some degree’ has been so often restated that the notion itself is cliché. Bear that in mind when I say that at its core, Annabelle Comes Home (2019) is a retelling of the old Greek myth of Pandora’s box - curiosity and weakness of will conspire to put our protagonists through the wringer. Further, fans of the Annabelle films and/or the larger Conjurverse franchise will note stylistic similarities and call-backs to other films. But, while the bones are old, the paint is fresh. Comes Home on the whole reinvents old tricks and unleashes new surprises that will have fans and newcomers alike feeling chills.
This is Gary Dauberman’s directorial debut, although he has written all of the Annabelle franchise films (as well as fellow Conjurverse film The Nun (2018), and the two It movies, among others). His direction is competent, with a few stylish visual segues between scenes sprinkled about and the use of oddly low- or high-angled shots to make things feel more off-putting (although he seems to avoid going Dutch).
Comes Home also prominently features visual shenanigans that have become franchise hallmarks - creepy things going on in the background, doors opening and closing by themselves, elegant editing tricks to make it look like spookums are walking through walls or appearing/disappearing out of nowhere, and so on. It might sound predictable, especially to franchise fans, but enough is done to undercut what is expected that the results are surprising and genuinely scary for the most part. Perhaps more tellingly, it toys with its own formula in a way that feels measured and matter-of-fact rather than self-congratulatingly meta.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmigia reprise their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren, mostly to book-end the film and lay some plot-relevant groundwork. As usual, they are absolutely charming together, albeit only briefly featured. This is an Annabelle movie, after all, not another installment in The Conjuring films, and historically the Warrens are peripheral to Annabelle’s larger story. Another familiar face is Samara Lee reprising her role as Bee Mullins from Annabelle: Creation (2017), appearing here as something of a harbinger of the scary things to come.
Notable newcomers include Mckenna Grace as Judy Warren (the Warren’s 10 year-old daughter), Madison Iseman as Mary Ellen (Judy’s babysitter), Katie Sarife as Daniella (friend of Mary Ellen who crashes her gig and just can’t keep her hands to herself in the cursed artifact room), and Michael Cimino as Bob (a teenage neighbor of the Warrens who shares a mutual attraction with babysitter Mary Ellen). All told, they do a fine job although no one really felt like a stand-out to me. Arguably, Daniella has the most acting to do (a little more on this later), and Judy has a few scenes where, as a child surrounded by the supernatural, she appears to channel a bit of Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense (1999).
There is significantly more comedy here than in prior entries, mostly coming from Bob’s bumbling efforts to impress Mary Ellen. I’m not knocking it - it’s actually a pretty classic horror formula to add a few yucks as laughing is diametrically opposite to messing your pants in fear, yielding a nice little rollercoaster of emotion. The humor we get has an awkward tone, but when delivered by hormonal teens it actually comes off as quite charming most of the time.
Where I had a bone to pick with Comes Home is in identifying our protagonist. Arguably, the most major internal arc is given to Daniella, which doesn’t make much sense in her contextualization as daughter’s babysitter’s friend, but does have more weight when we view her as our Pandora figure. She is simultaneously peripheral and also integral as a character which feels a tad sloppy from a writing perspective. Judy and Mary Ellen are a bit more centrally located to the premise, but both are dealing with external struggles (Judy being ostracized at school for her parents’ unorthodox line of work, and Mary Ellen with her crush on Bob) which makes their character arcs less about them and more about the people around them.
Also of note, Comes Home has the lowest body-count of all the Annabelle films and is less bloody in comparison to its predecessors as well. As such, the stakes don’t feel like they get quite as high as in the past, even with the continued demands for souls that the demon behind the doll is making and the treasure trove of accursed accessories it now has at its disposal.
To take a longer view, where Annabelle (2015) really succeeded was in delivering scares that were believable for a(n) expectant/new mother to have, preying on the viewer’s empathy. Where Creation succeeded was in perverting innocent things as Annabelle’s influence is unleashed (all the innocuous locations/people/accessories shown in the daylight hours are later used in the night to terrify). Comes Home tries to split the difference between empathy and foreshadowing, with mixed results. Some of the most effective moments come from fears we’d associate with being alone in someone else’s house, or from things we were primed for early on (fancy a game of Feeley Meeley, anyone?). But it also had, in my opinion, one of the most petty jump-scares of the entire series in the middle of a sequence that I found too high-concept and under-explained to be emotionally effective (it’s that part where a closet is turned into the galley of a ship cuz evil magics). Perhaps they’re trying to back-door some future franchise baddies, but here they didn’t all have enough room to really hit home.
I’m inclined to sum up movies in the Annabelle franchise as being (as a bumper sticker would say) like pizza - if it’s good, it’s really good, and if it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. That said, with how much I loved Creation (and boy did I!) I was hoping that Comes Home would continue that momentum. I don’t think it quite hit that mark, but it’s still a serviceable stand-alone and it does a nice job of putting a bow on the trilogy.
I would also like to take a second to applaud the Conjurverse for its treatment of women in its storytelling. Seriously, I know feminism and representation are big buzzwords right now, but if you look at the previous entries into this horror umbrella you’ll find a lot of female protagonists, female-presenting spookums, and female supporting roles. Whether or not the movies are good, whether or not the characters are fully fleshed out, they’re presented on equal footing as male protagonists, spookums, and supporting characters. The entire Conjurverse frequently bucks traditional female horror archetypes like “The Slut” and “The Final Girl”, instead allowing its characters to be their own women. The fact that The Conjuring, Etc. does this seemingly without fanfare and without a “trying too hard” vibe is laudable.
Annabelle Comes Home is not a perfect movie, but it gets to the action quickly, doesn’t “feel” long, and obviously had some thought put into it (without being compelled to telegraph how clever and original it all is). Arguably most importantly, it has sequences in it that are liable to stick with you when it’s time to turn out the lights. And isn’t that last point really what my fellow horror hounds are showing up for? I believe it is.