When The Conjuring first expanded into a multi-film franchise, horror fans rejoiced, clinging to the cinematic universe they could finally call their own. But it’s ability soon proved to fall short of its ambition, as a slew of loosely related run-of-the-mill fright fests sought to bank on name recognition alone. There’s simply no there there anymore. And the latest installment is far from the franchise’s saving grace. Despite a few choice performances (and effortless art direction), Annabelle Comes Home is a serviceable enough slumber party horror movie that never rises past its irritatingly familiar rhythm.
Once again, we meet demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) just as Annabelle has come into their possession, and they quickly recognize the boiling evil within the cursed doll. So, they lock her away in a case and seal it with vague Catholic magic. However, it isn’t long before duty calls, and they must leave their preteen daughter (Mckenna Grace) alone in the house to go ghost hunting. When the babysitter (Madison Iseman) brings her mischievous best friend (Katie Sarife) over to the Warrens’, she breaks into their treasure trove of murderous artifacts and unleashes the evil out into the world.
Annabelle Comes Home is certainly aimed at teens to be an introduction to the genre — a sort of a Baby’s First Horror — however, it lacks the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of Goosebumps or The House with a Clock in Its Walls. As a result, it isn’t nearly frightening enough for the older viewers and not quite flashy enough for younger ones. Writer-director Gary Dauberman takes the film as seriously as horror movies today tend to take themselves, even though he’s aiming to bank on the nostalgia for a time when the genre was lighthearted and self-deprecating. The paint-by-numbers thrill ride has a few scares set to period-appropriate soft rock jams, but none that you won’t see coming. Annabelle herself has surprisingly little to do. Early on, we’re told that she’s a beacon for all sorts of nastiness, and so she spends the entire movie passively delegating the thrills to other ghosts. Annabelle Comes Home often seems to only exist in order to introduce audiences to a slew of other ghouls that will undoubtedly get their own spin-offs, including a ghost werewolf, securing the return on investment for the Conjurverse.
Even if you are willing to put aside basic lapses in logic — such as the fact that the Warrens store all of the world’s most evil items in a cellar guarded by a simple lock that’s key is kept readily available to anyone who cares to commune with the dead — the movie is filled with ridiculous character decisions that lead to a fair amount of unintentional laughter. Although Dauberman lazily tries to explain her motivations, at a certain point, the girl who went out of her way to provoke Annabelle fully deserves whatever’s coming to her, and it’s all too tempting for the audience to root for the spirits to attack. Jaime Kennedy’s character from Scream would have a field day with this one.
Annabelle Comes Home may be slight and predictable, but not without its charms. The tight, claustrophobic setting forces the filmmaker to get creative in the execution of tension. However, the movie quickly becomes the embodiment of contemporary horror’s most egregious trend: building entire set pieces around a single jump scare with little regard to any sort of story. The back third of the runtime consists of setting up a cheap thrill, employing said cheap thrill, and then repeating step number one, making itself more akin to walking through an amusement park haunted house attraction than experiencing a well mapped out, genuinely chilling ghost story. Scraping the bare minimum for the genre, the viewer is able to see the gears turning, without even the courtesy of a narrative to distract them from their critical instincts.
Annabelle Comes Home sets its sights low, so it’s mostly able to reach them, but shouldn’t we expect more out of our horror flicks? Leaving little to no taste in your mouth, it’s not a “bad” movie, but it certainly isn’t a “good” movie. It’s just a harmless time-filler here to cash in on the success of a franchise that’s had significantly more misfires than hits at this point. Much like comedy, horror succeeds when it sets up an audience expectation and then proceeds to break it before our eyes, but Annabelle Comes Home is far too overtly telegraphed to ever be spooky, which would probably be less disappointing if we weren’t in the midst of a renaissance of clever horror.