‘Annabelle Comes Home’ Conjures Horror’s Ultimate Toy Story [Review]

The only toy story I care about, Annabelle Comes Home just may be the ultimate Conjuring universe movie, a highly suspenseful and entertaining tour through real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warrens’ infamous (and very real) Occult Museum, while leaving the demon-fighting couple themselves largely out of the story in this spinoff sequel.

Ever since the first Conjuring film, what I’ve loved most about the franchise in general is how it has elevated Ed and Loraine Warren to legendary status, both in the real world and in the films, as many of the best scares have been inspired by the couples’ actual cases. This third Annabelle film leans most heavily into the Warrens’ case files, in effect setting up numerous new spinoff possibilities when the heroic demon busters’ do-not-enter room is opened and pretty much all of the cursed and possessed artifacts within are awakened.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren in an extended cameo capacity, appearing in the opening callback to the original Conjuring and a highly atmospheric graveyard sequence that hits home the overarching plot point that the Annabelle doll is basically a magnet for evil entities. And while Ed and Lorraine may not be physically in most of the film, their presence is definitely felt through it all.

The primary setting of the Warrens’ home allows references and links to every other film in the ever-growing Conjuring universe, while laying the groundwork for many more to come. When the Warrens go away for a weekend (to meet the Perron family, maybe?), they leave their young daughter Judy in the care of their smart and sensible babysitter Mary Ellen, whose friend Daniela is the one who simply can’t resist the temptation to see if the supernatural objects in the locked artifacts room are truly supernatural.

While it’s easy to criticize Daniela, played by Katie Sarife, for doing exactly what we know she’s not supposed to do, it’s actually understandable once we learn the tragic circumstances of her dad’s untimely death. She has a real hope and good reason to contact him. And besides, what teenager doesn’t think they know everything and are smarter than everyone else?

Sarife is heartbreakingly good as Daniela, at once hardened and tough on the outside, while an emotional wreck on the inside.

Katie Sarife stars in 'Annabelle Comes Home'.
Katie Sarife stars in ‘Annabelle Comes Home’.

After memorable stand-out performances in Tales of Halloween and Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, Madison Iseman continues her ascension to horror royalty, playing the Warrens’ babysitter Mary Ellen. She bears a disturbing resemblance to a girl Ed and Lorraine once interviewed about The Ferryman, who demands payment of two coins placed over the eyes of the dead to take their souls to the Underworld. Like any good horror babysitter, Mary Ellen is ready to defend and fight for Judy Warren when all hell begins breaking loose, but she’s thankfully not saddled with the typical final-girl-finds-her-strength cliche.

Mckenna Grace (The Haunting of Hill House, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) delivers an amazing, multi-layered performance as the Warrens’ daughter, Judy, who sees dead people and has a strong sixth sense for malevolent spirits like her mom does. Grace is an extremely talented actor that we will all be talking about for a long time to come.

This is a film with three outstanding leads, all of which happen to be female, and it’s pretty awesome that none of them fall prey to any of the typical tropes that too often plague more generic offerings in the genre.

Writer and director Gary Dauberman, who also wrote both previous Annabelle films, as well as The Nun and the new It movies, is relentless in cranking up the tension and effectively using silence to draw out the suspense as long as absolutely possible. The film is so intense that in my local theater, an audience member literally had the shit scared out of them at one point. (For real, I’m not even joking.)

It even takes place during the Halloween season, as numerous pumpkins and Harvest Festival flyers are seen.

Annabelle’s namesake, known affectionately as Bee to her parents in Annabelle: Creation, shows up briefly, as does the demon referred to as The Ram in Annabelle, who we have been told in the prior films is the one actually giving the doll its appearance of being “possessed”, though it is not in fact possessed at all, as we were told by the Warrens in the first scene of The Conjuring. At least that’s what has been suggested in the films, but that doesn’t stop Annabelle Comes Home from making us wonder if there is indeed more to the doll itself than has been explained thus far.

In keeping with the theme of a child’s playthings made terrifying, a creepy musical monkey toy (briefly glimpsed in The Conjuring) and the vintage Feeley Meeley board game are introduced, but I especially love how effectively the film brings to life so many iconic images of horror from our collective genre-fueled nightmares, like the bloody corpse bride or the fog-bringing Hellhound werewolf, played by our friend Douglas Tait (read our interview here). And there are quite few different masks seen throughout the Warrens’ Occult Museum.

These timeless terrors are made fresh, and dare I say scary again, in a wildly fun viewing experience. This is big budget genre filmmaking executed to near perfection, with mostly practical effects and old school in-camera tricks of light and shadow, made with tons of love and respect for horror fans by horror fans.

Annabelle Comes Home is currently playing in theaters.

 

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‘Annabelle Comes Home’ Conjures Horror’s Ultimate Toy Story [Review]