Directed by: Gary Dauberman Starring: Mckenna Grace, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson Runtime: 106 minutes
In light of the success achieved by James Wan’s The Conjuring in 2013, something interesting happened in the horror genre. The traditional horror franchise was reinvigorated with a sexy contemporary touch. What became known as The Conjuring universe was formed. Invoking the trend of the Marvel Universe, the deal worked well for all interested parties. A fresh look on supernatural tales with a sincere effort that went into character development and that tried to find the balance between jump scare cliches and atmospheric horror. While The Conjuring and its 2016 sequel The Conjuring 2 did well to serve up a feast of scares, a distinct compelling feature was that it also had interpersonal depth. Indeed, it was as much character driven as it was driven by a desire to generate buzz around its refreshing demonic spirits. With characters like The Nun spurring justifiable albeit tepid spin-offs, supernatural investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are the cohesive glue that bind the Conjuring Universe together. The closer they’ve been to the series in the respective films, the better the films have fared, and with such good onscreen chemistry it’s easy to see why.
To the degree that previous films have thrived on this chemistry, Wilson and Farmiga’s absence in Annabelle Comes Home is strongly felt. While the film sets the tone with a scene involving Ed and Lorraine, the two are missing from all but about 15 minutes at either end of the running time here. While in many ways their presence isn’t exactly needed, it would surely make more sense to inculcate their supposedly vast array of paranormal experiences into the plot. The thing is, it’s not really so much of a Conjuring film. Technically, it’s the third installment of the Annabelle spin-off trilogy, although it acts as more of a crossover between The Conjuring and Annabelle series. The story is rooted in the mythology of the now already well explored demonic doll, but sets itself and very much leans on the 1970’s iconography that populated the series’ previous films where Wilson and Farmiga starred.
The events here centre around the Warren’s daughter Judy, who is at home for the night with her babysitter and her cheeky but likeable friend, both seniors in high school. A fairly substantial part of the first hour is driven by what are simply not very interesting plots. The Warrens are leaving for the night, the daughter is having a rough time in school, and the babysitter Mary Ellen is more smitten than she’d like to admit by the cute but dorky classmate who we see working in the store. This exposition continues for far too long, especially given that the opening scene doesn’t offer up many scares that we haven’t seen before. So there’s the best part of an hour here where not much is happening in the way of the creepy or demonic forces that this franchise has so successfully intrigued audiences with. It’s almost as if we’ve been given an extended palate cleanser that we never asked for.
The pacing then picks up and the events jump into action. It’s almost as if director Gary Dauberman forgets that horror is the genre here, and then jumps into life trying to rush in as many spooky moments as it can for the remainder of what at this point is already a lean running time. The babysitter’s friend Daniela goes down into the heavily locked storage room where the Warrens keep all of the haunted artifacts that they’ve collected throughout their paranormal career for safe keeping. After finding the conveniently poorly hidden set of keys, Daniela takes the chance to unlock the demon cellar and have a gander at all it has to offer. Curiosity is put to bed here when its revealed she has recently lost her father under dubious circumstances, so it becomes no wonder why she wants to probe what might be an insight into the other side. After touching many things, or “everything….” as the admittedly ham fisted line goes, the Annabelle doll gets free from the double locked and reinforced glass box that she’s been kept in, and then well, all hell breaks loose as the saying goes.
The film then begins to do what I suspected it would do from a much earlier point. That is, dig into all of the demons in the paranormal room and load the screen with as many scary figures as you can. It does milk it for all its worth, and feels like its scraping what it can from the already developed ghoulish universe. However, the Conjuring series has executed this before, and well too. In The Conjuring 2, we saw the Nun demon “Valak”, as well as the brilliantly crafted “Crooked Man” character, played by the serial contortionist Javier Botet López. These well crafted and appealing characters generated enough interest to get more films on the cards with these demons as titular characters. While The Nun faulted in its delivery, it’s yet to be seen whether the anticipated Crooked Man can justify these types of spin-offs.
When you take a step back and look at this tendency, it seems to me that the Conjuring Universe does seem to be throwing a lot of demons at the wall and seeing what sticks. They seem to be teasing out mythological creatures and supernatural ghosts as minor plot points, and gauging audiences to see if there’s enough appetite for more. A horror enthusiast like me isn’t likely to get cynical about this kind of move. The Conjuring Universe can churn out whatever it wants and I’ll always give it the old college try. But it does now seem to be a feature that’s interfering with the rich substance of what has overall been a franchise that’s easy to get invested in. An example of this in action here is the inclusion of a werewolf like character, the “Black Shuck”. It’s brought to life about halfway through and spends the bulk of its screen time terrorising the babysitter’s love interest. While its admirable to try to reinvigorate the iconic but perhaps over exposed werewolf archetype, the animation and effects are just devoid of any realism and terror. This beast may fit well into a fantasy film, or even its own horror film, but I don’t think it has any place in the Conjuring universe. As I expected though, this cartoony werewolf is likely going to be the focus in the next spin-off in the franchise. This is disappointing, as I think the much more enticing “Ferryman” demon is worthy of not just its own feature film but one worthy of the unsettling supernatural tone that The Conjuring Universe has brought to audiences thus far.
All in all, Annabelle Comes Home does close the door on at least the spine of this well performing horror franchise. There doesn’t seem to be much meat left on the bone when it comes to fleshing out the Warren’s accounts, nor does there seem to be anything left of the Annabelle doll that the films haven’t already explored. The series needs fresh faces, and in spite of some wonderful camera work and interesting and accessible new demonic forces for future films, this one ultimately fails to deliver anything more than a run of the mill haunted house horror film that’s still running off the steam of its powerful umbrella franchise. The first Annabelle film fell short of expectations, but the sequel hit much higher notes an all counts. If this is indeed the last outing for our creepy doll friend or even the wider Conjuring series, it’s unfortunate that it will go out with a bit of a whimper, on the back of a disappointing attempt in 2018 with The Nun.
It’s the directorial debut for Gary Daubuerman, but he’s spent a lot of time with the relevant source material. Having written the first two Annabelle films and The Nun, he’s well versed in this story, and so it’s disappointing that he hasn’t quite stolen the show with this well earned shot. It’s enough to satiate most horror enthusiasts who want a summer spook, but that’s about it.(2 / 5)