There is a certain kind of admiration this reviewer holds for James Wan. Wan's stamp on The Conjuring universe is unmistakable - his stylistic input is evident on the brand of horror these movies dish out, with each jump scare the audience feels inextricably linked to him. What awes this reviewer is how this has been maintained despite every single film in The Conjuring universe being directed by a different person.
Longtime Conjuring franchise story- and script-writer Gary Dauberman is at the helm this time around. Dauberman is no stranger to the series, but Annabelle Comes Home is his directorial debut. Upon careful observation, a writer's touch can be seen on the film, and Dauberman has rather shrewdly managed to eke out a few tense responses from the viewer purely on the basis of foreshadowing.
Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), the paranormal investigators extraordinaire from The Conjuring
, have brought the malevolent doll Annabelle
in their idyllic home in 1971 and locked it up. The couple leave their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace), who also happens to be as sensitive to spirits as her mother, under the care of her rather responsible nanny Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman).
Ellen's friend Daniela tags along to the Warrens' home - her curiousity about their profession prompting her to make some unwise decisions. A series of unfortunate events later, the three girls are separated in different parts of the old house, and Ellen's crush Bob (Michael Cimino) is locked out of the house - each stuck in their own personal hell. Annabelle is here now, and it so happens that she attracts all sorts of spirits to her.
Annabelle being a conduit is the underlying theme of the whole movie. If this were any other (read: slasher) horror movie, the doll would herself be possessed, coming to life with demonic strength as she slowly and violently dispatches off those who wronged her. Instead, Annabelle is silent, and unmoving - but still unmistakably unsettling. The jump scares are there (plenty of them), but so is the quiet, unnerving atmosphere the film carefully spends on building up for the majority of the first half.
Annabelle Comes Home has some fantastic cinematography (by Michael Burgess) in the second half. The use of lights and smoke, the angled hallways, and the portrayal of the dark all work to heighten the tension. The music by Joseph Bishara works its magic, too, and the all-too-familiar "what now?" feeling that causes hearts to beat faster is starting to take effect. Then, almost as soon as you're caught in its clutches, it is over. Dauberman painstakingly builds up Annabelle Comes Home, but at the end - while you are still being startled by the fake scares in the movie - you come out more afraid of them than his actual portrayal of evil, on the simple realisation that it is simply not there. Even though it throws at you anything and everything that would trigger your inner fear (a horned devil, a werewolf type, a possessed suit of eastern armour, the ferryman, a La Llorona
-style weeping woman - you name it), nothing sticks because the darkness behind it does not inspire fear.
With a post-climactic party and a happily-ever-after (from the story perspective, because in real life Hollywood being Hollywood will milk the franchise until it can't), Annabelle Comes Home is to horror movies what Tinder is to dating.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have only a few moments on screen, with only the latter having a scene that seems impactful. The three young women on screen have been written believably, with personal motivations that are in tune with their characters. McKenna Grace's Judy Warren seems worldly-wise and older than her 10-year-old self, but it's her handling of things like bullying that truly shows the character's maturity. While Madison Iseman's Mary Ellen is saintly to the level of being annoying, she gets you to root for the character after displaying her vulnerabilities.
Katie Sarife's Daniela is the most complicated character of the three, and her troubled past makes her actions believable. Michael Cimino is excellent comic relief as Mary Ellen's boyfriend (though his heroics do come in handy at a point), and Annabelle Comes Home arguably succeeds at making people laugh in the middle of a horror movie without dispelling the tension.
Annabelle Comes Home is the kind of film you'd expect from The Conjuring universe - a quality production, plenty of jump scares, but also a more reserved approach to horror than most. While it doesn't stand out on its own, it also makes sure that the viewer doesn't want to be standing (or sitting) on their own when they watch it.
Not bad, especially if you're into James Wan-esque stuff.