Even though you know you’re on a movie set, on a soundstage at a studio in Burbank, California, there’s something undeniably creepy about walking into the artifact room of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, they are the paranormal investigators at the heart of the Conjuring universe whose collection of arcane and haunted objects are a literal department store of the supernatural. And right in the middle of it all, nestled in her oh-so-fragile glass case, sits Annabelle.
Annabelle Comes Home is the third film in the series based upon the hideously possessed doll, a mini-franchise launched out of the belly of the larger Conjuring mothership. Annabelle (2014) kicked off the saga in less than spectacular fashion, while 2017’s Annabelle: Creation was a major course correction and overall improvement over what had come before.
And now there’s Annabelle Comes Home, a title which has more than one meaning. But primarily the movie does in fact bring us right into the heart of the collection of eerie curios that has been the connective tissue for the ever-expanding Conjuring mythology, which now includes the two movies (soon to be three) under that title, The Nun, The Curse of La Llorona and, of course, the adventures of Annabelle herself.
“The idea of actually setting a film around (the artifact room) was something that we had in our mind for a while,” says producer Peter Safran. “(We) just thought that the third Annabelle movie is the opportunity to really raise the stakes… Also the opening scene of The Conjuring is so iconic when it opens up on the half face of Annabelle, we just always liked the idea of, what happened after they left there? It was actually something other people had asked us in the past as well. We just thought we will explore that story.”
Taking the directorial reins for the first time is Gary Dauberman, writer on the two previous Annabelle outings as well as The Nun and both chapters of Stephen King’s It. Based on a story by Dauberman and Conjuring mastermind James Wan, Annabelle Comes Home finds Ed and Lorraine securing Annabelle and her demonic influence away from the world behind sacred glass. But she manages to activate the spirits ensconced in the artifacts around her, targeting the Warrens’ 10-year-old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace), and her babysitters Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and Daniela (Katie Sarife).
Judy, Mary Ellen and Daniela are all part of the scene we watch being filmed on the set, which has recreated a significant portion of the Warrens’ home, circa the 1970s, right down to the wood paneling on the ceilings and the shag rugs on the floors. As we watch, the three girls are playing a game called Feeley Meeley, which involves reaching your hand inside a box and pulling some sort of playing piece out. It seems like the kind of activity that, in a horror movie, is not going to end well. The scene ends on an ominous note as the doorbell rings and Mary Ellen heads cautiously out of the room to answer it.
“(Mary Ellen) is kind of this almost perfect idealistic girl,” says Iseman, who’s also part of the Jumanji and Goosebumps franchises. “She’s very pure. She kind of has her whole life planned out in front of her. She’s very put together. When everything goes wrong, she has an interesting way of dealing with it. It’s definitely not what she’s used to.” While it seems that “everything goes wrong” would be business as usual with the Warrens, Iseman maintains that her character is close with the unusual family. “She’s very, very close with the Warrens, so she feels a huge responsibility, especially once everything kind of goes awry, to make sure everything is taken care of.”
The three girls have not spent much time with Annabelle herself yet, but they acknowledge the doll’s formidable influence. “Dolls were my biggest fear as a child,” says Katie Sarife during a break in filming. “I was terrified of dolls growing up. I still am. I had one particular doll in my room that my mom never took out, no matter how much I cried. I thought they were real. Now whenever I go home, I’m an adult now, so I can be like ‘Mom, it’s not in my room anymore, please. Keep it away.’ So coming into this I definitely felt like it was a bit of payback for all the years of being terrified by my dolls.”
As we tour the interiors of the Warrens’ house, the attention to period detail is quite extraordinary: there is faded linoleum on the kitchen floor and the aged cabinets are filled with real objects. The living room features a console TV and a stone fireplace, in addition to the rugs and paneling we mentioned earlier. “(With) the movies that had been done before, I had a little issue because the house was never established,” says production designer Jennifer Spence. “It was just pieces of other homes that they’d used. So I struggled with how it all went together because it was all different houses. But then James was like, ‘You know what, you guys? Just make your own thing, do your own thing.’”
New additions to the artifact room, which has been expanded for this outing, include a secret room (“I’m not really allowed to say what happens, but we got quite a few things going on in that room,” hints Spence) and a trap door in the floor, which does not figure into this story but has been installed for films yet to come. “When I was designing it, I thought it was a better idea if I could include some things that maybe aren’t in the script in order to open up some other avenues for future directors and future ideas,” Spence explains, showing us a hidden staircase behind the Warrens’ living room fireplace as well. “Even if we don’t use it, it’s just something fun to put there and maybe in the next story, it may not be The Conjuring 3, it may be The Conjuring 4, but it’s just to give everybody a little more room to work in.”
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are not on the set on the day we visit, but their presence is still a significant part of the story. Although Dauberman doesn’t sit for a formal interview while he’s running around the set, he does manage to give the assembled reporters a few minutes of time between setups. “One night, we’re out on location outside the exterior Warren house, and (Wilson and Farmiga) show up on set,” he says about the Conjuring stars. “They’re dressed as Ed and Lorraine Warren. They come out and you could just feel the energy just shift and change as they stepped out in that. For everybody, it was just a very ‘electricity in the air’ kind of thing.”
Dauberman says that working with the two seasoned actors on his first directorial outing has been a dream assignment. “I guess because James fosters that collaborative process, they were super supportive,” he says. “They had their own great ideas — ‘What if you do this? Would it be better if you did that?’ ‘Yes, it would be better. That’s actually a great idea. Let’s do that.’ They just seemed very happy to be back in this club, back together. The chemistry between them is just evident in all the movies. It’s been really cool. It was really cool to get a front row seat to that.”
It was James Wan who came up with the idea of making the Warren family the focus of the third Annabelle movie, according to the director: “He just comes up to you out of nowhere and says, ‘I have this great idea for a thing.’ You’re like, ‘Oh my god, that’s a great idea.’ Then you sort of — the wheels start turning.” He adds, “He had that kernel idea. Then he and I would sit down and just flesh it out together, in terms of what the overall structure of it would be. Who would be involved and all that stuff. The larger movements of the story. (But) it was James with that initial idea for the setup.”
Peter Safran says it was a natural evolution for Dauberman to step up and sit in the director’s chair for Annabelle Comes Home. “It was the easiest decision I think that we’ve made in the whole franchise,” says the producer. “We just know him so well, he’s learned so much at the hands of James and obviously (David) Sandberg and Corin (Hardy) as well, but just really working with James so closely, it’s like going to university on how to craft scares. He was really ready to make that move and you know what, we all identified Annabelle Comes Home as the one where he should do it.”
Although Safran says he and Wan are interested in keeping as much of the filmmaking team as possible together on all of the Conjuring movies — which, incredibly, may be the most successful modern shared universe after the Marvel juggernaut — he emphasizes that their goal is for each entry to have its own distinct identity, something they hope carries over to Annabelle Comes Home.
“We always try to make sure that we’re not diluting what we’re doing, that we’re telling stories that just stand on their own,” Safran insists. “So we try to find ways to make sure they don’t feel repetitive, and I think we’re pretty successful in doing that…although we brought (this one) back home to the Warrens’ house, the movie has a very different feel. It all takes place in one night as opposed to stretched out over the course of a family story. So we feel like it definitely stands alone with its own tone and vibe.”
Annabelle Comes Home is out in theaters on July 3, 2019.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye