'Annabelle Comes Home' Review: One Hell of a House Party

Like a great bottle episode in a major series, 'Annabelle Comes Home' is a tight, taut terror that cements the staying power of The Conjuring franchise.

Annabelle Comes Home is like the rare, good bottle episode of a long-running network television show. Self-contained and accessible even if you’ve never watched any of the seven (!) other Conjuring movies, it’s also scary as hell, brimming with atmosphere and tension that deliver precisely the sort of calculated, weighted frights the series is known for. Though the story ends with a thud, the rest of the ride is a roaring good time that will trick your smart watch into thinking you just ran the Rocky Steps.

Out on June 26, Annabelle Comes Home is the third in the Annabelle spin-off films but predominantly stars characters from the main Conjuring series. Helmed by franchise staple Gary Dauberman, Annabelle Comes Home is the final “origin story” of Annabelle as she’s ultimately placed behind glass in the Warren home amid a vast collection of haunted items. (Today that collection is a museum that is closed due to zoning regulations. Seems even the devil can’t stop Connecticut state legislature.)

When Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, reprising their suburban demonologists from the two Conjuring movies) leave for the weekend, their daughter Judy Warren (Mckenna Grace, replacing Sterling Jerins from The Conjuring 2) is left under the care of high schooler Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). When Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), still grieving the loss of her father, lets Annabelle free, the scariest night of their lives begins.

From left to right: Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, and Mckenna Grace star in 'Annabelle Comes Home,' in theaters Friday.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Yeah, it’s Adventures in Babysitting with a demon doll, and it’s awesome. Defying decades of convention that dictate horror sequels are never as good as the original, Annabelle Comes Home is a taut haunted house movie with likable, if mind bogglingly stupid teens in place of the series’ usual family units. If part of your fun in horror movies is yelling at the protagonists for being dumb dumbs while tossing fistfuls of popcorn at the screen, then Annabelle Comes Home is the WrestleMania of summer horror movies. It’s also bloodless, so those turned off by violence may actually find minor comfort here.

(Considering the other doll terrorizing theaters right now, it’s in Annabelle’s favor to be different.)

But there’s some real feats in the movie too, from the film’s intelligent framing, pacing, and storytelling which generate the biggest (and best) scares, to textured production design that score on immersion. If it’s not the creepy new villain, “The Bride,” that scares you, or the movie’s parlor tricks with all the demonic toys in the Warren collection, it’s the authentic and gaudy ‘70s shag carpeting that will surely traumatize you.

My god, the Bride: Not since Samara has a lanky woman in white been as eerie as the Bride. Though she’s one of the new “villains” of this cinematic universe with brief screen time in Comes Home, I anticipate horror buffs to buzz over this new monster. Expect her to show up at one of your Halloween parties this year.

But as part of the “Conjuring Universe,” the film proves continuities don’t need anchors to carry installments. (Hey, Fast & Furious and Pirates of the Caribbean, pay attention.) Though Comes Home begins as yet another episode in the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, an alleged horror story in its own right, Comes Home comes alive thanks to the new characters we meet, standing strong with its own internal stakes and themes on loss and belonging.

Negatively, it’s in the familiar elements where the movie disappoints. We’ve now known Annabelle for eight years and she is still not a realized character. Even in Annabelle Comes Home, she continues to be the enabler for bad things, a mere plot device not an omniscient presence with personality.

Imagine a Conjuring Universe where Annabelle is a central authority figure on the spirits that inhabit the Warren household. Annabelle Comes Home only flirts with this but never actually follows through in a way that’s enriching or compelling. Even so, the film is wise enough to let Annabelle and the Warrens take a backseat to let the more interesting characters (the kids) shine through.

Annabelle is back, and as eerie as ever.

Warner Bros. Pictures

It helps the kids are played by lively actors, too. While Mckenna Grace already has an impressive filmography at the age of 12 (including I, Tonya and Captain Marvel), Annabelle Comes Home is hers to own. Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife perform admirably too, both of them a throwback to the sort of ‘80s horror that Annabelle Comes Home is too obviously influenced by.

None of the girls in this film are, at their core, wicked or selfish, which is often the case in these movies where someone inevitably gets what’s coming to them. There’s real humanity and sympathy in these characters (most of all Daniela), that you can’t hate them even when they do the dumbest things in a creepy room with warnings everywhere.

Though it’s yet another horror period piece in the backdrop of Americana, Annabelle Comes Home is a thoroughly modern house of horrors with plenty of cheap tricks that use of every tool in a filmmaker’s toolbox. It’s an atmospheric ride anchored by powerful young actors playing authentically human characters who face down some very novel monster concepts. It’s just a bummer Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t really know how to dish out both in equally. Ultimately, Annabelle Comes Home really is just a haunted house. The ghosts inside are just there to scare you, not to haunt you.

Annabelle Comes Home arrives in theaters on June 26, 2019.

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