There’s at least one moment in Annabelle Comes Home, the seventh entry in The Conjuring’s Universe and the third of its own trilogy, that sends shivers down the spine. We know the scare is coming, everything in the frame and the soundtrack tells us so. The creak of a door, a familiar face and a stranger waiting together, side by side. Darkness looms around them, the night closing in, as the pizza delivery guy confesses to having eaten a slice for himself in the car.
But enough about that. This particular Annabelle film is stronger than the first, but it’s a far cry from the playful, tense atmosphere that David F. Sandberg conjured up (ha) with his prequel Creation back in 2017. Comes Home is credited to director Gary Dauberman, who wrote both prior offerings in the trilogy as well as this third one, so it’s kind of frustrating how little synergy there is to be found across the saga. The Annabelle series has now lurched backwards and forwards in time, covered three separate environments and families and stories, and yet there’s very little connective tissue between them. In a cinematic universe, standalone works fine – but in a trilogy, it’s hard not to long for a little bit of connectivity.
As a film in its own right, Annabelle Comes Home is a pretty hollow, flaccid affair. There’s very little structure to proceedings, the film’s narrative lacking any new punch or twist. We’ve seen Annabelle wake up and do some light hauntin’ twice before already, and this third entry doesn’t bring anything new besides the inclusion of Ed and Lorraine Warren (the ever-welcome Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively). They lend some familiarity to the film’s early moments but are soon shipped off in favour of a new roster of faces to fight off demons. It’s hard not to miss them when they’re gone.
Mckenna Grace and Madison Iseman take top honours this time around, both of whom give sturdy performances bound to characters with very little dimension or progression. Beyond bullied child and kind soul, there’s not a whole lot here to identify them with. Slightly more interesting is Daniela (Katie Sarife, in the film’s strongest performance), who begins as the typical brash, loudmouthed sidekick we’re trained to expect from any film on this wavelength. A pivotal scene early in the second act shifts this expectation though, giving Daniela a more personal and intimate connection to the story than you initially suspect. It’s not exactly a deep or complex development, but it’s a welcome change in character format.
As mentioned earlier, Annabelle Comes Home suffers from its limp structure. We spend the first half of the film lifelessly waiting for things to kick into gear, later scares predictably being set up in the process, but there’s nothing particularly elegant about how the film takes on this challenge. Remember the stitched-up single-take tracking shot through the Don’t Breathe house, showing us both the environment’s layout and a variety of nastiness we could expect to come? Annabelle doesn’t concern itself with enjoying this inevitable task. It feels like an awkward greatest hits section that’s mistakenly being dropped before the hits have been released.
We’re shown potential demon after potential demon, spooky box after spooky box, all in anticipation of them rocking back up later on once Annabelle actually commits to being a horror. The film gets there eventually, soon shifting into what it appears to think is an all-out assault on the senses, but is more just a collage of quiet demonic build ups punctuated with loud jumps. There’s only so many times you can jump at the same exact formula, and naturally some of the scares here work better than others; a tall, sinister man with coins over his eyes is used imaginatively and a brief sequence involving a retro television is nicely executed, but a giant smoke-based bloodhound feels like it belongs in a different franchise entirely.
At the risk of repeating the start of this review, there sincerely is one moment here that really works. We’re shown a board game the kids play early in the film, and the nature of the game – stick your hands inside a dark box and pull out an item – leads us to know this is coming back later on. The moment soon comes and the board game is back, reborn as a horror element now, but Dauberman undercuts our expectation by having the tension sharply switched into a gag instead, side-lining it entirely before abruptly returning it once again ten minutes later in a now far more interesting mini horror set piece, after we’ve already dismissed it as being over.
Sure, it’s hardly Hereditary, but it’s the kind of playfulness that’s sorely missing from the rest of Annabelle Comes Home. If a horror film isn’t intending to hold a mirror to society or to ourselves, and all it wants to do is make things go bump in the night, it needs to be fun enough for us to forgive the lack of substance. The horror genre is appealing because it reveals our darkest impulses, it makes us question ourselves in ways we wouldn’t in any other context. Without that, there’s very little reason to sit through a film more content to make us jump than make us uneasy. Annabelle Comes Home is only fleetingly frightening and passably entertaining. If The Conjuring still intends on building a universe around these movies, it’s going to have to start aiming a little higher.
Directed by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: Mckenna Grace, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife