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Annabelle Comes Home is a unique dichotomy. This is arguably the best that The Conjuring franchise has delivered thus far in terms of tension and intentions and yet, it’s still not very good. Despite offering better characters and a tiny bit more rationale for why villainous ghosts and demons act as they do, Annabelle Comes Home still fails due to an over-reliance on jump scares and a lack of ambition in storytelling.
Annabelle Comes Home tells the story of the evil Annabelle doll after it was retrieved by Ed and Lorraine Warren (and brought back to their quiet suburban home. In an effectively eerie opening, Ed and Lorraine witness the evil abilities of Annabelle, which is a conduit for demons seeking a human host for their evil soul. The doll has the ability to suck out the soul of a willing or vulnerable victim and replace it with a malevolent demon seeking a human form. Or, that’s what I am inferring. Annabelle’s evil abilities are rather nebulous and have been so since the founding of this character.
The Warren’s get Annabelle home and they lock her up in their vast museum of evil and use religious incantations and the presence of a helpful priest to lock the evil inside a case made of holy glass gifted to the Warren’s from a church. This is enough to keep Annabelle’s evil contained for 2 years until the real plot of this movie kicks in. The story goes that the Warren’s had managed to avoid the limelight until their local paper reported on their activities as demon hunters and wondered in headline form if they are for real or for real con-artists.
The article stokes curiosity about the Warrens and leads to the remainder of the plot of Annabelle Comes Home. The Warren’s have a speaking engagement out of town overnight and are leaving their daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), home with a babysitter named Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), who is aware of their work but not the extent of the evil they fight. Mary Ellen’s closest friend, Daniella (Katie Sarife), is fascinated by the Warren’s and when she hears that Mary Ellen is going to their home overnight, she crashes the party, eager to snoop around.
Daniella drives the plot by being the one who invades the museum of evil. And way to go leaving the keys in plain sight Ed and Lorraine, it’s not like you have ancient, deathly evil locked in there, eager to escape, or something. Daniella is drawn to Annabelle and of course, Annabelle is eager to bring her close in order to steal her soul for some other ancient evil entity. I think that is what is happening here; again, the makers of Annabelle use the vaguary of Annabelle’s powers as a way of cheating around the plot as needed.
Annabelle Comes Home was written and directed by Gary Dauberman who previously scripted The Nun in The Conjuring-verse and was a co-screenwriter for It. Having the singular vision of a writer-director in place speaks to a stronger vision for Annabelle Comes Home versus the too many cooks take on other Annabelle adventures. That said, Dauberman’s singular vision only goes so far. He appears to be quite good at creating likable characters but sadly, he fails in making Annabelle the character a coherent villain.
I mentioned the characters of Annabelle Comes Home. I have to praise actress Katie Sarife. This relatively inexperienced young actress is given a role that in the wrong hands could be a stock character, a placeholder, a plot point. And yet, Sarife infuses her with complexity and life. Part of that is the strong writing and care taken in crafting the character by Dauberman but it takes a strong actress to give that character realistic, sympathetic life and Sarife does that very well.
I also have nothing but kind things to say about Madison Iseman. The Jumanji reboot star is continuing to come into her own as a leading lady and her work here demonstrates her ongoing growth. Iseman is becoming a welcome presence and I am seeing big things for her once she is able to escape the genre ghetto of horror-leading ladies. Iseman has an innate goodness and empathy that I really enjoyed in Annabelle Comes Home. If only she wasn’t so often pressed into cliched moments.
For all of the good things about Annabelle Comes Home, the film cannot escape its own genre traps. The film keeps getting tripped up having to deliver the jump scares required by the Conjuring-verse. That means that ghosts or demons or whatever have to keep knocking over cups or slamming doors or manipulating electronics for no good reason other than cheap scares rather than the organic tension that could be so much more effective with these terrific characters.
Instead, these good actresses are repeatedly forced into jump scare scenarios that undermine their performances. Instead of relaxing and allowing the tension to build, the movie plays as if there were a high quota on jump scares. It’s as if the director was paid solely on the number of jump scares and got very greedy. Annabelle Comes Home is a jump scare machine and for some that may actually work, some people just like to jump. For me, however, I wanted more of these terrific characters.
Annabelle Comes Home lacks ambition in telling this story. Thanks to these two terrific actresses I wanted to buy in on this story, something that has not happened for me in watching a Conjuring-verse movie. Sadly, the filmmakers are too focused on forced jumps. A more ambitious telling would have leaned into the good versus evil side of this story. A more ambitious telling might have given equal weight to good as well as evil and instead of forcing scares a better movie would have allowed these characters to tell the story and have scares develop organically.
All of that said, I know that I am asking too much. I am aware that Annabelle Comes Home is as much a mass produced product as it is an actual movie. I am experienced enough and cynical enough to recognize that ambition and artistry are not the aim of these Conjuring related products. These movies exist solely to capitalize on what is already popular in a synergistic orgy of commerce. I get it. I don’t enjoy it or recommend that you indulge it, but I get it.