As a decade reaches its end, it’s too easy for critics to become precious about the studio trends of recent movie culture. Every few years pop culture is dominated by styles and tastes, and tastes are a transient thing. Yet when coming upon a film like Annabelle Comes Home—the third spinoff/prequel-turned-sequel to The Conjuring—it is impossible to not notice how this mega-franchise has defined the type of horror movies we got in the 2010s. Once a breath of wicked fresh air from James Wan, his throwback to ‘70s dread (and dubious “true story” claims) has birthed a decidedly modern understanding of a “shared universe.” And as creepy as his two macabre Conjuring movies were, in that haunted house theme park kind of way, the spinoffs from Annabelle to The Nun have felt closer to country carnival knockoffs.
Which brings us to Annabelle Comes Home, a unique culmination for any franchise. As a sequel to Annabelle: Creation, which in turn was a prequel to Annabelle—the first prequel in the series set before either Conjuring film—the third Annabelle returns to the image that so terrified moviegoers in 2013: a creepy doll behind a plane of glass. It was that very glass in the Warren family’s home where we left the devil made of porcelain in the original Conjuring (and her Raggedy Ann counterpart in real-life), and now her story continues in what is kind of a backdoor Conjuring 3.
After so many films and strained continuity though, it resembles less the grounded slow-boil terror of The Exorcist and other ‘70s chillers that informed Wan’s two films than it does an ‘80s slasher sequel. How can it not when we’ve reached the point where teenage protagonists are running in the dark from animated werewolves?
Still technically set in the disco decade, Annabelle Comes Home leans into its period setting with the same kind of kitschy glee as the Conjuring proper films. Hairstyles are long and straight, Donnie and Marie are on television, and everyone’s obsessed with demonic possession. Then again that’s for good reason in the Ed and Lorraine Warren household. With Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga making glorified (but not unwelcome) cameos at the beginning and end of the picture, Ed and Lorraine open proceedings by having a priest bless their basement of horrors, a makeshift museum of every cursed, haunted, or possessed artifact they’ve ever stumbled upon. None are kept under safer lock and key though than Annabelle.
Once a just a really groovy monster in The Conjuring’s opening sequence, she is now the reigning demon of the museum, ruling on high and waiting to conclude her soul-sucking business with Judy Warren, the sweet little girl she haunted in the 2013 movie and who has been recast to appear especially young and vulnerable here with The Haunting on Hill House’s Mckenna Grace. And vulnerable she is with her sullen eyes and glossy raven hair, which along with stories about her parents has made her a pariah at school. No one’s coming to her birthday party, and even the folks won’t be there on an actual day since they’re away on a case. Instead she’s left to celebrate it with her babysitter Mary (Jumanji’s Madison Iseman) and that teen’s bestie, Daniela (Katie Sarif). Unfortunately, Daniela suffers from the grief of having lost her father in a recent accident and a new, sudden condition of Horror Movie Idiot Syndrome.
In our world, it is almost nonexistent, but in horror movies it’s a common place disorder in which otherwise smart people compulsively make really stupid decisions to instigate the plot. Which in this case is Daniela sneaking into the Warrens’ museum in an attempt to commune with her daddy… and to touch every single evil artifact in the place, including taking Annabelle out of her case. Soon there are more spirits spilling out than a New Year’s Eve afterparty.
The directorial debut of writer Gary Dauberman, the mastermind who has penned every Conjuring spinoff except The Curse of La Llorona, Annabelle 3 stands as that familiar pivot in nearly every long-running horror movie franchise. The ones that stick around enough time to seep into the culture and reach a seventh installment tend to look a little different than the paradigm-shifters that first turned them into must-sees, and indeed Annabelle Comes Home’s story structure better resembles Night at the Museum or the original Jumanji than it does The Conjuring. It’s also about as scary as those too.
With the movie’s still enjoyable period aesthetic quickly devolving into jump scares involving bodiless wedding dresses with a bloodlust, the Hound of the Baskervilles outside, and of course Annabelle herself and the demon inside of her, there’s little time to build up atmosphere or an aesthetic beyond the catch-and-release of the latest sequence of a possessed television doing… things. Some rules from the previous films are preserved (such as Annabelle never moving) but others are jettisoned to poor results. Where once a demonic possession could take a whole movie with eerie subtexts about depression and suicide, now the demon just jumps literally into frame and tries to suck the soul out of the girls’ faces like a witch in Hocus Pocus.
The effect is not unlike seeing “Toby” in the later Paranormal Activity films after the gasps are long gone, but the laughter is only growing. This kitchen sink approach also leaves the cast with little to work with. Grace is excellent as the sweet little girl who really deserves better than to be in this nightmare home, but she is only required to alternate between melancholic and enthusiastically happy.
Iseman and Sarife are also affable enough as the fresh-faced young women who have to put up with their proverbial Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, but they have about as much development as those genre ancestors. Their dynamic actually quite mirrors the plot setup of Halloween 5 for those fellow B-movie aficionados out there. Their movie is also just about as schlocky.
The Conjuring is one of the best horror movies of the last 10 years, and both it and its direct sequel have earned their place as pop culture furniture. But its universe is starting to look long in the tooth when Annabelle is about as scary as a sofa, and the biggest shock to be found in her third outing is that even though we see Patrick Wilson pick up a guitar, we’re not allowed to hear another one of his enchanting Elvis covers. Curses.
Annabelle Comes Home on June 26.