Courtesy of Warner Bros.
I’m starting to wonder if James Wann’s genuinely frightening “The Conjuring” was a fluke. Because when your franchise is cranking out conventional and routine storytelling in the vein of “The Nun,” “The Curse of La LLorona” and now “Annabelle Comes Home” - it makes you question what you found enjoyable to begin with.
The first “Annabelle” - a film birthed because it was a minor Easter egg in a much bigger picture - wasn’t anything to rave about, and its follow-up “Annabelle Creation” was a surprisingly winning entry, but I’d chalk that up to “Light’s Out” and “Shazam” director David F Sandberg for putting some nice stylistic touches on a series in desperate need of a tune up. He understood that you needn’t slam doors, cut the power, and watch characters make stupid decisions in order to be scary. Like Wann did in both “Conjuring” films, Sandberg utilized atmospheric tension to his benefit.
And a film like “Annabelle Comes Home” could use that type of care and attention as Gary Dauberman’s empty attempt to give the possessed doll life, only collects dust: Likely to serve to its demographic of high school teens barely old enough to purchase a ticket (and too afraid to actually push themselves with something like the endurance test that is “Midsommar”) - “Annabelle Comes Home” should collect a decent penny at the box office, all but ensuring ten more installments.
I suppose the craftiest element in “Comes Home” is that it manages to snag a few nods and references to the glory days of John Hughes flicks (complete with a guitar serenade) except this haunted house clunker fails to capitalize on that name brand.
Instead, “Comes Home” harks back to the better times and scares of its inaugural predecessor, where Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) again rely how dangerous the devilish doll, Annabelle, is to the world circa 1972. It’s so dangerous in fact, they lock up the would-be demonic vessel in a cage in their basement and have a priest bless it each and every week. The words on the glass case state explicitly: “positively DO-NOT-OPEN” as to warn viewers just how spooky this thing is.
Cue the clueless teens who will break that vow as Ed and Lorraine Warren decide to take a break and go off and, presumably, film “The Conjuring 3” while “Comes Home” promotes their 10-year old daughter Lucy (Mckenna Grace) and her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Isema) to lead status.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Warren’s lore, the two psychologists have an occult room where they keep a piece of memorabilia from each job they finish. Picture the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum, but like for horror nerds. And Dauberman tosses many nooks and Easter eggs into the film that'll be easy to spot considering the majority of “Comes Home” doesn’t leave the Warren household, and registers as a low-level entry into a worn-out series. It’s like the filmmakers got together on a weekend last fall to shoot this thing, pieced it together, released it, and called it a day. As they say, if ain’t broke - don’t fix it.
Except, it is broke, and it most definitely needs fixing.
Anyhow, the Warrens are away from the weekend, cheerfully leaving their daughter Judy alone with Mary whose best friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) has been trying to contact her dad since he died. So when she hears about the Warrens’ career, she insists on staying for the weekend too. Before you can say “lazy,” she’s found the keys to the Warren’s temple of doom and begins poking, playing, and prodding every prop she can handle, and opening every portal to hell in the process.
Diligently, Annabelle starts showing up in various parts of the house, rocking in a chair or grinning under the covers next to Judy. You see Annabelle doesn’t really do anything, she just brings along a heaping plethora of pissed-off ghouls eager to leave the confines of the Warrens’ prison.
So the squad spends most of the film lurking down barely lit hallways trying to put Annabelle back to bed behind the church glass veil. There are plenty of creeks (seriously, who works on these houses? If I had floorboards this bad, I’d be suing) - and, believe me when I say, high squeals that should warrant ear plugs be given with every ticket purchased.
But “Annabelle Comes Home” never relishes in its claustrophobic setting. The film would rather have you sit and wait - and there’s an awful lot of waiting that transpires here - while an entire vault of unexploited potential sits on the sideline. Maybe had those character broken their chains and made a run of the neighborhood, perhaps this series could get credit for trying something new.
12 year-old Grace, was a force in the terrific film “Gifted” opposite Chris Evans - manages to bring a sliver of credibility to the film, making her scenes work in ways violins screeching and ghost whispers cannot, and from her perspective you really get an understanding of her situation. She’s getting bullied at school, and all of her friends cancelled on attending her birthday party because of mom and dad’s profession. But like her parents taught her, she remains calm and takes the higher ground. Maybe the doll from hell could learn a thing or two from the mature pre-teen? Now that would be a sequel worth exploring.
Still, you can’t have a horror film without a strong villain, and Annabelle would have you think that a smirk and grin counts as being diabolical. News flash, it doesn’t.