Dolls, especially old porcelain ones, are creepy. If you don’t think so, you probably think clowns are good fun too. A doll’s perpetual smile is bad enough, but the most frightful feature these inanimate playthings possess is their eyes — always the eyes. No matter how “cute” a doll was designed to be, in the right (wrong?) light, the eyes seem to pierce with a relentless gaze of potential menace. When James Wan (the man behind the Conjuring films) decided to explore the story of Annabelle, he wisely chose to make some changes. The films in the Conjuring universe — which include two under that name, The Nun and now three Annabelle’s — are all based on the true stories of real life paranormal investigator couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, best known for their work at the famed Amityville house. That house of course spawned a book and a few films long before Wan, who has seemingly found a treasure trove of material via the couple’s other cases, came along. More films are in development as you read this.
But the real Annabelle was in reality, a possessed Raggedy Ann doll (not so scary). So Wan and his team designed the ugliest, most demented likeness of a little girl they could “conjure” for their new villain, a sort of a demented Talky Tina (remember that Twilight Zone episode?) with a Joker grin and ventriloquist-dummy expression (remember Magic?). Two movies in, the latest in the series, Annabelle Comes Home, sees the terrifying toy, who never speaks by the way, go where the real Annabelle (well, Ann) actually lives — in the haunted artifact room of the Warren’s Northeastern home, now a museum of sorts. The pair have both passed on.
The new film opens up as the couple (the always likeably earnest Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) transport and store Annabelle in the sealed glass case she will call home. Pretty quickly we realize this film isn’t about them, but rather their daughter Judy (played with heart and nuance by 13-year-old Mckenna Grace). Like her mother, Judy has spiritual gifts, and this along with her parents occupation gets her picked on at school; her upcoming birthday shindig will seemingly be a pity party full of no-shows. Leading up to that event, it’s up to Judy’s amiable babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to cheer the girl up and keep her entertained when her parents go out of town for the night. Things go awry when Mary Ellen’s nosy gal-pal Daniela (Katie Sarife) pays a visit to the house and stops at nothing to see what’s inside the infamous room of horrors.
You can kinda guess what happens next. Monsters and ghouls (many obvious set-ups for future films), as well as Annabelle herself, are unleashed with great fury, with the bulk of the film pitting our young female protagonists against the spirits seeping throughout the house — all in one exhausting evening. There is some nice comic relief provided by Mary Ellen’s crush (Michael Cimino), who pays a visit, and a spacey pizza man, but for the most part the movie from this point on is battle of wills: three young women against an array of violent, wicked creatures, complete with the requisite jump scares, screams and eerie imagery.
Writer/director Gary Dauberman has an obvious affinity for classic haunted house set-ups and his approach here has a charm to it that the previous Annabelle films actually lacked. Set in the ’70s with the cool soundtrack to go with it, this one plays like a very self-aware stab at the classic ghost story, but with a new vibe and spirit that’s scary but not too scary. Kids — especially kids today, who were raised on the internet — should enjoy and be able to handle it pretty easily (like Goosebumps or the aforementioned Twilight Zone), unless dolls in particular happen to give them nightmares. The film probably got its R rating for a few F-bombs and some gore (it could have used a little more).
Still, even the predictable parts are fun here because they’re milked in a suspenseful way that’s played for (nervous) laughs as well as scares, though not in the campy, CGI way of say, the Chucky films. Annabelle may be the most evil doll in horror right now, but so far anyways she still plays and slays old school style, and for this homecoming it works.