Unlike the meticulously plotted Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which everything matters and all instalments work towards the established bigger picture, episodes in Warner Bros.’ Conjuring franchise are only ever as significant as the momentary pleasure they exude. Thus, the events of The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona bear no significance in Annabelle Comes Home, third in the porcelain sub series and seventh overall. Heck, even the previous two Annabelle films feel barely relevant with this one. An all too brief turn for Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s Ed and Lorraine Warren makes for a promising start but in their absence the film suffers a bad case of tonal confusion.
Sandwiching the Warrens – whose emotional integrity has proven so vital to the wider franchise’s success – either side of this third Annabelle’s meat is the cruellest trick played by writer-director Gary Dauberman in the film. A mean-spirited lure you in move from a franchise aware of its own mileage and limitations. A trap to disguise the horror within, which is to say that this is bog standard haunted house material, with bog standard heroes and bog standard scares. What’s worse, the plot’s dirge and precious little is done to disguise the functionality of it all. This isn’t storytelling, it’s an exercise in scaring amenable teens. Arresting visuals and neat ideas do pepper the action but they’re meaningless in a context that simply relies on the premise that random ghouls have been unleashed and need trapping back on the other side. Suggestion that dark histories exist fail to convince, whilst the wrap is so neat that it practically bows.
And then there’s Annabelle. Previous instalments might have established a back story for the doll, involving dead girls and demonic possessions, but here she is simply ‘a conduit’. Or, rather, plot device. The film opens with Ed and Lorraine collecting Annabelle from her prior owners for their hellhole of a spare room; that in which we first met her back in 2013. En route home, a fall in with angry, recently deceased victims of a car crash inspires extra measures in enclosing her. Heaven forbid someone should find the key to the glass cabinet they bung her in and open it whilst the Warrens are away. What a disaster that would be. Imagine.
No need. Just a scene later, Ed and Lorraine are heading out for a spin off of their own, with their daughter Judy (recast from Sterling Jerins as Gifted’s Mckenna Grace) left in the hands of doe eyed nanny Mary Ellen (Jumanji’s Madison Iseman). Whilst she’s a goody two shoes, when Mary Ellen’s occult curious classmate Daniela (Katie Sarife) invites herself around for the baby sitting, it’s not long before her snooping has unleashed Annabelle unto the house.
Tenuous and trope laden, Dauberman’s plot efficiently manipulates the right people – including Mary Ellen’s cute crush Bob (Michael Cimino) – into the right place at the right time for a fright night to remember. You won’t. An initial over reliance on the ability of randomly appearing people to chill soon gives way to similar dependence on crash bangs and quick reveals. Recalling the all in attitude of Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Annabelle 3 finds Dauberman – who conceived the plot with series producer James Wan – upturning his haunted house toy box and shaking it until the whole things empties out. There’s a demon bride, devilish ram, budget-stretching hellhound, spooky ferryman…the list goes on. Expect each to feature in future spin-offs. More creatively, a prophetic television elicits smart chills and a genuinely creepy twist on a Feeley Meeley board game. All the while, Annabelle gurns.
Annabelle Comes Home is at its best when it drops its guard and forgets to take itself seriously. There’s a fun gag early on about spilt sauce in a supermarket and nice awkward romancing later between Mary Ellen and hapless Bob. Unfortunately, that’s just not the film Dauberman is set on making. The result isn’t all bad but rarely feels worth the price of admission. While her franchise may well find rocks yet unturned, it’s probably time this doll was pushed gently back under the bed.