Movie Review: Annabelle Comes Home
By Ben Gruchow
July 13, 2019
It’s the fog, I think. If there’s a single element of Annabelle Comes Home that reveals just how aware its filmmakers are of the material’s goofiness, it’s in the pervasive amount of fog that creeps over absolutely everything onscreen. It’s pure Hammer-era excess in outdoor scenes, but even indoor locations are suffused with haze and choking on atmosphere. In a consciously serious horror film, this would pull us out of the story; I’m thinking of the similar tactic utilized by the pervasively grim Pet Sematary remake from earlier this year. And this film, like that one, is R-rated and contains its share of disturbing imagery. But come on: how seriously are we supposed to take a horror film with this title and tagline (“Possess them all”)?
I say we’re not supposed to, and that ends up elevating the proceedings. Certainly, we’re not meant to feel anything more than mild shivers during the movie’s suspense sequences, which contain some unsettling imagery that is nevertheless so toned down that I’d not give side-eye to the idea that the R rating is there as an honorific to the brand rather than anything earned. That brand started with 2013’s The Conjuring, and has continued through a direct sequel and two (as of now) spinoff franchises. They’re all notable for approaching horror from an old-school, almost naïve perspective—one that observes its greatest success when that square-ness is used in the service of truly effective construction of scares, as it was in both Conjuring films.
Those films were told in large part from the point of view of the adults in the picture—in particular, the infamous real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played in this series by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga); in Annabelle Comes Home, the focus is shifted to a younger cohort: the Warrens’ daughter, Judy; her teenage babysitter, Mary Ellen; and the babysitter’s friend, Daniela/Plot Device. It’s also localized mostly to the Warrens’ own house. Since the Warrens never mention anything in later films about Annabelle the demonic doll taking over their home and slaughtering their family and friends, these twin developments have the effect of instantly lowering the storytelling stakes; we know the leads are going to make it out alive, and Annabelle will either be destroyed or placed back in her glass case.
Despite bookending sequences featuring the Warrens (with a subplot about their emerging reputation as frauds), then, the movie is given over to scenes between Judy and Mary Ellen...or Mary Ellen and Daniela (who’s heard a bit about the Warrens’ trade and wants to know all the details), or Mary Ellen and Bob (the boy from across the street). Bob wants to date Mary Ellen, when he’s not being chased by hellhounds. There are hellhounds chasing him because Daniela took an opportunity to sneak into the locked room on the lower floor of the Warren house, which contains so many ominous-looking trinkets and figurines and talismans that I suspect some of them are just there to round out shelf space...and being a teenage character in a summertime horror movie, Daniela is of course motivated to touch and manipulate everything she sees.
This includes (finally) the demonic doll Annabelle, who is sitting on a chair in a glass case. I want to talk about this for a minute. The case is emblazoned with warning text: “POSITIVELY DO NOT OPEN”. I wonder what prompted the need for the adverb, or any printed statement to begin with. Certainly the Warrens themselves don’t need to be reminded not to play with the sentient doll that channels evil spirits the moment it’s not locked up. Do they offer public tours in the world of the film, as they did in real life? This seems unlikely, but it would explain why the display case labeled “POSITIVELY DO NOT OPEN” is given such central and dominant placement and lighting. They must have been profitable ventures, to outweigh the ever-present likelihood of someone accidentally breaking the glass and dooming the entire tour group.
Annabelle, it’s pointed out to us, is a conduit for demonic entities; she amplifies their presence and capabilities. So once the case is opened, the danger isn’t just from the doll, but all the other haunted objects in the room. This includes a bridal gown with a most unfortunate fate bestowed upon its original wearer. A pile of old coins. A display of shogun armor. A talisman that releases a hellhound. And so on. Nobody in the world of Annabelle Comes Home has ever seen Cabin in the Woods, to their misfortune; Judy and Mary Ellen and Daniela (and Bob) are soon enough being pursued through the Warrens’ split-level by various manifestations, with Annabelle popping up here and there as if to remind her victims that she’s the cause of all this.
Some of the manifestations are more dramatically potent than others: I particularly liked the Ferryman, who seems destined to be the focus of the next spinoff movie. This is a spirit who guides souls into the afterlife; as compensation, his passengers place a coin over their eyes. Greco-Roman scholars will recognize this as the story of Charon, and there is a good sequence midway through the film as one of the characters makes her way through the darkened house with a flashlight, following the clink of coins falling to the floor just out of the light’s circle. The production and costume design here provide us with an evocative visual of light reflecting off of coins in place of eyes, with everything else obscured by shadow. We can forgive a little historical inaccuracy (the coins were placed in the mouths of the dead for Charon, not over the eyes) when the narrative isn’t affected.
The whole of Annabelle Comes Home works as a small-scale and almost playful skirmish against the larger stakes of previous films in the serious. There’s never much of a sense of threat given by the spirits who invade the home, and the R rating belies an absence of the kind of nightmarish imagery we’ve seen from this series before (the Ferryman, for example, is impressive in the manner of a well-constructed prop; fright-wise, he’s got nothing on the Crooked Man from the second Conjuring). Similarly, the Annabelle doll itself gets less unsettling with each appearance. It’s a good prop, but it’s overdesigned to the point of camp; only the first Conjuring film was it truly creepy, and that was largely because James Wan is better at the art of insinuating horror than is Gary Dauberman here. Then again, we make an excuse for historical inaccuracy from square one: the real-life Annabelle doll is a mass-produced Raggedy Ann, not an elaborate porcelain construct. The floor for how creepy Annabelle could be can still go far lower than what this film represents.
Thus is the movie largely successful at what it sets out to do; it aims only to be scary in the amiable fashion of a carnival haunted-house ride, and it’s entertaining in the same fashion. The dynamic between Judy and Mary Ellen feels authentic; Daniela may be a plot device, but Dauberman (who also wrote the screenplay) at least sees fit to give her a motivation and thought process that we can empathize with if not legitimize. And there’s something to be said for craftsmanship well-enough deployed to make such a familiar trope as “don’t screw around in the haunted room” result in effective cinematic technique.
3 out of 5