Movies

{Movie Review} Sorry You Didn’t Get to See Any Cobwebs: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

She’s in the case for a reason.”

Over a decade ago—before The Conjuring or even Insidious—James Wan and Leigh Whannell made an evil dummy movie called Dead Silence. By now, Wan is enough of a household name in the horror world that most people are probably at least aware of this frequently maligned side-trip in his filmography, but it’s worth revisiting in the wake of the latest installment in the Conjuring Universe for one simple reason: Dead Silence is, for all intents and purposes, a (very) hard-R Goosebumps.

That affection for stuff that other horror creators would dismiss as too rote or childish is part of what draws me so heavily to Wan’s oeuvre. He understands that childish things don’t have to be left behind just because you’re growing up—they have the power to grow up with you. After all, there’s a reason why campfire stories and EC Comics and urban legends still hold us in their sway year after year, generation after generation.

Wan gets this, and apparently so does screenwriter/first-time director Gary Dauberman, who takes over behind the camera for this latest go-round in the Conjuring sandbox. If The Nun was the Conjuring Universe’s answer to Italian gothic films, then Annabelle Comes Home is its Amblin Entertainment installment. It’s also easily the best non-Conjuring film in the franchise, and I say that as someone who likes pretty much all of them. (I haven’t seen La Llorona yet.)

Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Annabelle Comes Home is rated R, since literally every other installment in the Conjuring franchise has been, but I still was. In fact, when we got not one but three red band trailers before the movie, I had to quickly pull up my phone to make sure. If I hadn’t done that and you had asked me afterward, I would have guessed PG-13—less because the movie isn’t scary, though it doesn’t have much in the way of violence or gore, in spite of a blood-spattered bride and a Polaroid of an animal with its throat torn out—than because it seems so tailor-made for kids roughly the age of its young protagonists.

That isn’t a knock, though for some “serious” horror fans it may be a detriment, just as I’ve seen some people scoff at the (great-looking) upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film for being aimed at kids—as if the books that traumatized us all weren’t. I loved Annabelle Comes Home. Not just liked. Loved.

I probably haven’t felt this good about a Conjuring movie after walking out of the theater since the first one. Dauberman may not have Wan’s knack for a perfectly-timed set piece, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of unforgettable moments in Annabelle Comes Home, and for those who, like myself, found themselves longing for more heavily-designed monsters than just kohl-eyed ghosts, there’s plenty to like behind the glass and the “positively do not open” sign.

Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

If you don’t already know it, the premise here is simple enough. Annabelle Comes Home opens in the same place that the original Conjuring does—with the movie versions of Ed and Lorraine Warren first acquiring the Annabelle doll that has caused so much trouble in other films. We see them haul it home and lock it up in their artifact room, then jump to a year later, when they are headed out on a trip and leaving their daughter Judy—this time played by McKenna Grace; Sterling Jerins, who has since aged out of the role, essayed it in her last two appearances—with a babysitter (Madison Iseman).

In some ways, Annabelle Comes Home is pure fan service. We’ve all wanted to see more of the artifact room since it was introduced in the first Conjuring film, so here it’s front-and-center. When the Warrens head out of town, the babysitter’s slightly wilder friend (Katie Sarife) shows up eager to snoop around the forbidden room.

Fortunately, as with previous Conjuring films, the screenplay here is smarter than it looks at first glance. While everyone is about to do some things that will make the audience shake their heads, throw up their hands, or shout at the screen, they do a good job of establishing solid reasons why each character is about to behave the way that they do. Reasons that don’t just make their actions make sense in retrospect, but that help to flesh out their characters and make stereotypes just a titch more rounded.

This takes place on the heels of the events of the first film, meaning that everyone in town has just learned what the Warrens do with their time, in the wake of the publicity surrounding the Perron case. Judy is having trouble with the kids at school because of it. Trouble that she doesn’t want her folks worrying about. (“My parents said I’m not really ready to process death yet,” one little girl tells her, when Judy asks if she’ll be coming to her birthday party.) Plus, Judy has a secret of her own that’s weighing on her.

Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

It is also this newfound publicity that drives nosy friend Daniela’s curiosity. While initially she just seems like a thoughtless kid with a morbid curiosity—which we all should be able to relate to a bit, if we’re sitting in the dark watching a movie about a possessed doll—she turns out to have her own reasons for wanting to reach out to the other side. And where better to look than the Warrens’ artifact room?

She’s the one who shows us through the room, and who unwittingly unleashes its inhabitants by letting Annabelle out to “activate” all of the creepy crap in the place. While I say all of it, and the film certainly implies that everything is on and going, there are really only a few “character” ghosts in the picture, and they provide a more campfire story menagerie than previous Conjuring flicks. There’s a spectral bride, a wonderfully-designed creep with coins for eyes called The Ferryman, that suit of samurai armor (of course), and the ghost of a werewolf.

That’s right, this movie contains the ghost of a werewolf. I honestly don’t know why you’re still reading, unless you’re just killing time while you wait for the ticketing server to load or something.

The room is full of plenty of other stuff, though, some of it obviously eerie (that monkey with the squeezebox) and others head scratching (I want to know the story behind that haunted weather vane). Some items are featured prominently, such as a (real) weird board game called Feely Meely and a haunted TV, while others are simply shown in passing. But all of them get a lot more attention than they’ve ever gotten before.

Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

This is a perfect sleepover movie. The kind of film where the kids are on their own to save the day. On Instagram, James Wan cited The Monster Squad as an inspiration, which I love, but I’d be more inclined to point toward something like The Gate or any given episode of Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark? (Maybe not coincidentally, Gary Dauberman is also writing the script for the forthcoming movie version of Are You Afraid of the Dark?)

Perhaps the greatest testament to the potential staying power of the Conjuring franchise is how well its last few installments (La Llorona possibly withstanding) have managed to vary up its formula while still feeling of a piece with one another. Annabelle Comes Home is its best achievement in that regard so far, and a damn fine addition to the genre of babysitter/kids on bikes horror.

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