Nightmares in Babysitting: "Annabelle Comes Home" a blast of funhouse scares, heart, and likable characters

Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
106 min.
Release Date: June 26, 2019 (Wide)

Upping the ante as the third installment in the “Annabelle” series, “Annabelle Comes Home” delivers on the can’t-miss conceptual promise of a “Night at the Museum”-type spookshow with the titular pigtailed nightmare and other relics from the Warrens’ haunted artifact room. Also considered the seventh entry in “The Conjuring Universe,” the film might be the most satisfying film since we last saw the Warren family directly involved. Gary Dauberman (writer of 2014’s “Annabelle,” 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation,” and 2018’s “The Nun”) makes his directorial bow and works from his own screenplay, concocting a blast of an up-all-night babysitting adventure that blends funhouse scares and thrilling tension with a comparatively lighter tone, as well as the most heart this series has offered. “Annabelle Comes Home” not only cares about engineering hair-raising doozies, but it goes one step further by respecting the likable characters whom the viewer can easily care about. 

After a recent case involving the cuddly, sweet-faced doll Annabelle that acts as a conduit for an inhuman spirit, paranormal investigators-cum-demonologists-cum-husband-and-wife Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) have the doll blessed by a priest and then lock her away in a glass cabinet within their artifact room of other haunted objects in their suburban Connecticut home. A year later after the evil has seemingly been contained, the Warrens leave town to investigate another case while responsible teen Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) babysits their 10-year-old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace). What could go wrong? Mary Ellen’s friend, Daniella (Katie Sarife), stops over uninvited, bringing over a pair of roller skates to Judy as a birthday present. While Daniella encourages Mary Ellen to take Judy out to test them out, she promises to watch the birthday cake in the oven but also hurries to go snooping for the key to open the door to the Warrens’ forbidden artifact room. Daniella eventually finds the key, and once curiously wandering through and touching every cursed artifact, she opens Annabelle’s cabinet marked “Warning! Positively Do Not Open” that unleashes all of the other spirits from their tchotchke vessels. The three girls are in for a long, ghoulish night.

An ideal option to watch at a sleepover or in a theater inside of a sleeping bag, “Annabelle Comes Home” plays out like a fun haunted-house ride that might not be deeply horrifying but dishes out the creeps and levity in equal measure. Save for the attention-grabbing opening sequence that introduces how Ed and Lorraine get their hands on the trouble-making doll, the film is a spine-tingler in the most classical mode by taking its time working up to the tense set-pieces and giving optimal breathing room to the characters who are just carrying on with their day before Annabelle and friends come out to play. First-time director Gary Dauberman makes confident use of the camera for maximum mood and suspense, mischievously setting up would-be jump scares with anticipation and then twisting expectations of such predictable rhythms. Outside of milking the inanimate, yet still creepy, Raggedy Ann stand-in for all she’s worth, Dauberman unleashes a whole bag of tricks, including a killer wedding dress, Milton Bradley board game Feeley Meeley, a future-telling television set, and a coin-eyed soul collector called The Ferryman. While several jolts are of the jumpy variety and still effective, some of the more restrained chills include a dead priest following Judy around, calling to mind 2015’s “It Follows"; Daniela spotting her deceased father staring back at her from the Warrens' back door; and the striking use of Judy’s bedroom spinning lamp to illuminate a certain someone’s shadow. 

Recast as Judy Warren, Mckenna Grace (2017’s “I, Tonya”) is preternaturally assured, carrying herself with such a maturity and thoughtfulness that bely her young age. Like her mother, Judy has been gifted—nay, cursed—with a sixth sense, and what Judy’s parents do for a living has an effect on her life at school, particularly with her birthday party coming up and all of her classmates declining their invitation. Madison Iseman (2018’s “Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween”) is warm and likable as Mary Ellen, and Katie Sarife brings much more personality and unexpectedly moving layers to Daniela, whose desperate curiosity to enter the Warrens’ Artifact Room extends to her grief and desire to contact her late father since she has lived with guilt for his death. Together, Grace, Iseman, and Sarife all share a nice chemistry together that it’s easy to invest in them, and though Daniela is the one to open Pandora’s box, there is enough sympathy and traceable thought to her that she becomes more than just a dumb horror-movie stereotype. Newcomer Michael Cimino also makes a sweet impression as Bob, a wholesome grocery clerk with a mutual crush on Mary Ellen, even if his participation in the story suddenly stops until the end. Last but not least, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson may only appear in the bookending scenes, but they should be commended for portraying Lorraine and Ed Warren as figures whom we trust and feel safe with, and their love and support for one another, as well as their daughter, still rings true.

As any well-crafted horror film does, “Annabelle Comes Home” begins and ends with the lives of its closely observed characters. Gary Dauberman makes the wise choice to not end on a cheap stinger but to close on how the supernatural goings-on have impacted the Warren family, as well as Mary Ellen and Daniella, and where they all go from there. Another bonus is that the early-‘70s production design is so lived-in and fastidiously detailed, from the shag carpeting of the Warrens’ homey split-level house, to Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” playing on the car radio and Badfinger’s “Day After Day” on vinyl, and that dreaded artifact room. R-rated more for terror than explicit violence, “Annabelle Comes Home” makes one realize that they actually missed the porcelain beacon of evil after all, achieving the mission statement of the “Conjuring” canon by knowing how to rattle audiences with a welcome sense of macabre fun.

Grade: B +