The Conjuring franchise is a force in the contemporary horror landscape. That same golden James Wan touch that sparked franchising with Saw and Insidious struck again on the 2013 horror hit, which struck box office gold and helped revive New Line Cinema, aka the House that Freddy Built, as a dominant player in the genre. Now, six years later, The Conjuring has a full-blown horror universe, shared with Annabelle, The Nun, and The Curse of La Llorona and it’s time for some of those delightful callbacks and crossovers that can make a cinematic universe so satisfying.
With Annabelle Comes Home, the Conjuring-verse essentially gets its Fast Five, so to speak, a non-stop thrill ride that brings back some franchise favorites for another spooky adventure, while introducing new players with spinoff potential of their own. New Line and Conjuring-verse screenwriting regular Gary Dauberman, who penned the scripts for Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, and The Nun, makes his directorial debut on Annabelle Comes Home, for which he also wrote the script, and he knocks it out of the park with a delightful piece of popcorn horror.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the charming demonologists and paranormal investigators at the heat of Wan’s Conjuring films. Set in 1971, the film finds the Warrens after the events of the first Conjuring film, when Annabelle is “safely” tucked away in their artifact room and the fallout from their growing, controversial reputation as exorcists reaps an unfortunate social toll on their young daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), who shares some of her mother’s frightening gifts. Dauberman smartly wields the Warrens as a straight shot to the core of the franchise, before sending the seasoned paranormal pros out of the picture, turning the spotlight to Judy for a lighter, more adventurous and youthful approach to the material.
With the Warrens making headlines, the local parents are up in arms about exposing their kids to fears of mortality and otherworldly threats. Which sucks especially hard for Judy, who finds herself not only the subject of school ground taunts but with her birthday fast approaching, keeps getting a steady string of “no” replies to her party invitations. Thankfully, she’s got one heck of a cool, kind-hearted babysitter in Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), who makes it her mission to cheer the young girl up when the Warrens head out for a weekend trip, homemade birthday cake and all.
Judy and Mary Ellen plan a quiet celebration at home, but when Marry Ellen’s rebellious and macabre-inclined best friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) tags along, everything gets terrifying in a hurry. Driven by a recent family tragedy, Daniela wastes no time breaking into the artifact room and, oops, she lets Annabelle out of the demonic doll’s chapel glass cage. As it turns out, Annabelle is basically a super-charged wifi hotspot for other ghosts, ghouls, and creatures of the night, who spring to life and torment the girls en masse. It’s a hoot.
Dauberman has an absolute arsenal of creepy creatures at his disposal, from the titular doll to a long-awaited iconic Warren case and a few new chilling ghoulish inventions. And he doesn’t waste a beat. Dauberman throws it all on the wall colorful enthusiasm; wicked spirits, ferocious beasts, a primally creepy board game, there’s even a Twilight Zone-esque television set that reveals horrifying visions of the future and makes for some excellent set-pieces.
And boy, Annabelle Comes Home loves a good set-piece. Dauberman is right at home in the established house style of the Conjuring-verse; energetic, polished, playing into the signature build-up and misdirection of the familiar franchise scares. He also has some fun with the lore, throwing in plenty of fun callbacks and Easter Eggs for franchise fans. Dauberman rises to the challenge of making an unmoving doll scary and Annabelle herself get some of her creepiest moments yet, but perhaps the film’s most inspired stroke is that’s not just an Annabelle film, it’s packed to the brim with creepy creatures to keep the audience on their toes.
And if Dauberman’s been taking notes from Wan along the way, he’s also been learning from his other creative colleagues, and as much as Annabelle Comes Home feels like a peak Conjuring entry, it also shares some creative DNA with Dauberman’s other New Line horror hit – IT. Dauberman penned the script for the Stephen King adaptation, and more than any of his previous Conjuring-verse scripts, you’ll find a similar sense of heart and humor in Annabelle Comes Home. Like most teen horror, the kids make some infuriatingly foolish decisions along the way, but Dauberman ultimately grounds them in enough emotional truth to make you feel for and fear for the characters in the end.
Annabelle Comes Home also shares IT’s funhouse structure, and Dauberman shows a skilled hand at balancing scares with punches of comedic and emotional relief, lining up a rollercoaster of thrills and chills that keeps your heart racing and a smile plastered on your face. Across the board, Annabelle Comes Home, is a blast from start to finish, a horror-fuelled babysitting adventure that sends plucky teens into peril and watches them faces down the odds. One of the biggest compliments I can give: It’s such an energetic, fun-loving horror film that it’s bound to become a regular in my Halloween-season watchlist. Throw in a couple of standout supporting characters (be prepared to fall in love with a sweet young man named Bob), a tightly-paced adventure through countless haunted horrors, and an ever-escalating series of scares, and you’ve got yourself one of the best entries in the Conjuring series.