After an investigation, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) bring the doll called Annabelle to their home. Lorraine figures out the doll is a beacon for spirits and the Warrens put it inside a special display case, made with glass from church, and blessed by a priest. Once the display case door is locked, Lorraine can tell the evil is contained. The display case is in a locked room along with the most dangerous items the Warrens have collected during their years of investigations. A year later, the Warrens are leaving for an overnight investigation. Their 12-year old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) will be watched over by a babysitter named Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) who will spend the night. Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) reads a newspaper article questioning whether the Warrens are frauds and learns of their paranormal past. She arrives at the Warren house after they leave with an agenda: Her father has recently died, and she hopes to contact his spirit using items from the Warren’s collection. Because of the newspaper article, Judy is being bullied at school and her friends are refusing to come to her upcoming birthday party. Judy is a sensitive to spirits like her mother and is seeing the ghost of a dead priest watching her at school. Daniela finds the keys to the locked collection room and looks around, touching numerous items and asking for a sign there’s a spirit present. Annabelle moves forward and bumps into the glass, getting Daniela’s attention. She unlocks the case and puts Annabelle back in her chair, but she forgets to lock the display case door. When she leaves the room, Annabelle again leans forward and this time, she escapes. Soon, everything in the collection room begins causing trouble for Daniela, Mary Ellen and Judy.
“Annabelle Comes Home” is the seventh entry in the “Conjuring” universe of films. Annabelle, along with the Nun, are the two big bads that have spun off into franchises of their own. Perhaps we’ll get a team-up film where the two demonic entities join forces to try and defeat the Warrens. But that’s another movie for another day. “Annabelle Comes Home” almost manages to overcome its genre conventions and tell a decent story with some scares thrown in to keep its fans happy. Sadly, almost is only good enough in hand grenades and horseshoes, and “Annabelle Comes Home” gives up the ghost as the inevitable happy ending approaches.
The main themes of the film are loss and acceptance. Katie Sarife’s Daniela is dealing with the loss of her father in a car accident. She is desperate to reconnect with her dad and get closure following his sudden passing. Her desire for contact overrides her doubt about the paranormal and her fear of the unknown. She abandons reason and safety to find peace and comfort. You see the same thing happen when the grief-stricken attempt to drown their sorrows with alcohol and/or numb their feelings with drugs. In all those examples, the pain remains, and the outcome isn’t good.
McKenna Grace’s Judy is being ostracized because of her parent’s work. She’s considered a freak and is the target of bullying at school. Judy is in a tough spot as she is about to enter her teenage years, hit puberty and get her first glimpses of adulthood. Adding parents that are the targets of public scorn and suspicion adds a nearly intolerable level of pressure for such a young and sensitive girl. Judy and Daniela begin an unlikely friendship, finding comradery in their different struggles. It’s this bonding, along with Mary Ellen, that forms the backbone of the story.
This exploration of female friendship and shared struggle is actually well done and engaging, considering this is a horror movie. The three don’t blame each other for the trouble they are facing (despite Daniela’s actions being the cause) and work together to contain Annabelle. They form their own little non-traditional family when there’s no one that can help them.
McKenna Grace gives a wonderful performance as Judy. She’s calm in the face of all the weirdness and uses what her mother has taught her about the spirit world to guide Mary Ellen and Daniela through the danger. Grace has a poise and maturity one might not expect for a 13-year old. She’s believable as the already experienced ghost buster and her character lacks the precocious snark that might be added in a less well thought out script.
While the story of female empowerment in the face of demonic threat is well done, the final act undoes most of the good work that sets it up. Director Gary Dauberman, who co-wrote the script with producer James Wan, falls back on haunted house scares in an overstuffed finale. Several things in the Warren’s collection get a moment in the moonlight as the film turns up the attempted scares per minute to maximum. I say attempted because nothing much in the film causes the pulse to quicken even a little bit. An early scene with spirits coming from a graveyard is effective, but that’s about all that managed to startle me. The movie does a good job of building tension but never quite pays it off, then it throws everything at the audience in a frenetic ending that becomes tiresome.
“Annabelle Comes Home” is rated R for horror violence and terror. There are some blood-covered ghosts, a werewolf, a horned demon, corpses with coins on their eyes and the spirit that guides them to the afterlife, the ghost of a priest with very dark eyes and a cursed suit of samurai armor. We see part of an exorcism, a stabbing, a werewolf tries to kill a character, a ghost pukes itself into the mouth of another character, a demonic TV shows a bloody future for one character and a demon tries to suck the soul out of a character. There is also some ghostly throwing of characters in various scenes. Foul language is mild and only occurs two or three times. Why the film got an R rating is a mystery.
Looking at my review of “Annabelle: Creation,” I have many of the same opinions about that film as I do “Annabelle Comes Home.” Both films have quality performances from young actresses but waste their efforts by building tension and setting up scares, but never delivering quality frights. This film tries to have quantity instead of quality as it throws everything at the audience in the last 20 minutes in hopes to score some scares, but the lackluster boogiemen won’t threaten anyone’s bladder control.
The “Conjuring” films and their spinoffs are wildly successful, taking in a worldwide gross so far of over $1.7 billion on films with a combined production budget of $139 million. That’s about 13 times return on investment. People keep paying to see these films, so the studio will keep making them. I haven’t found any of the films I’ve seen in the series to be very scary and “The Nun” was laughably bad. Perhaps I’m too jaded or too old to be affected by these films the way the makers intended, but scary should be scary no matter how old I get, and this film just isn’t scary.
“Annabelle Comes Home” gets three stars out of five.
A superhero and horror are on tap for the holiday week with both films opening prior to the weekend. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
Spider-Man: Far from Home—
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