Annabelle Comes Home is part of the Conjuring franchise, but you don’t need to have seen any of those movies (which also include The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona) to understand what’s going on here, which is that there’s a creepy doll that isn’t possessed per se but that is a conduit for demons to harass humans and potentially take their souls. Like the rest of the series, it comes from the case files of real-life supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played with a sweet homeyness by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who really do have a doll named Annabelle in their collection — a Raggedy Ann model, but I suppose getting the rights to that trademark for the movie was a nonstarter — locked away even from the other haunted artifacts because of its especial malevolence.
The movie, naturally, is about the babysitter letting the doll out.
OK, technically it’s the babysitter’s friend, who’s come over because she heard the Warrens have a room full of creepy things. The girl, Daniela (Katie Sarife), isn’t just looking for trouble, either; she wants to make contact with her recently deceased father. Cut her some slack, she’s grieving.
Whatever the reason for Annabelle’s unleashing, it results in a sturdy, stylish, meat-and-potatoes haunted-house movie better than anything in the series other than The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. First-time director Gary Dauberman, who wrote this screenplay and those for Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, and The Nun, must have learned a few tricks along the way, as this is a confident, well-directed debut that makes good use of the camera.
It’s the early ’70s, a year after the Warrens acquired Annabelle (as seen tangentially in The Conjuring), and they’re off to a conference or something, leaving their bright daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), home with wholesome blonde high-schooler Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to supervise. Judy, somewhat tapped in to the spirit world like her mom, is only a little bit Wednesday Addams, but the kids at school mock her for her parents’ line of work. Daniela stops by the house on the first evening, as does Bob (Michael Cimino, but not the one who directed The Deer Hunter), a wholesome boy who works at his family’s grocery store and has a crush on Mary Ellen, which she reciprocates. Their chaste flirtation is so adorable you momentarily forget you’re watching a scary ghost movie and not a horrifying Nicholas Sparks movie.
Anyway, as mentioned, Annabelle is not alive or possessed. Demons move her around to make people think she is, but she’s really just a conductor and a magnet. Once you let her out of her glass cage (it is not explained how the glass contains the evil), she starts attracting whatever evil spirits are nearby, particularly those associated with the Warrens’ other cursed knickknacks. This means terror on several fronts, from a variety of folkloric sources, with the four main characters frequently separated from one another and facing danger alone. Dauberman employs numerous horror tropes, usually very effectively, including hellhounds, a Ferryman, and assorted grotesque visions. My personal favorite is a bit where Daniela sees her reflection in an unplugged TV, only it’s a reflection of what’s going to happen a few seconds from now.
One thing the film never does, though, that both Conjurings did, is scare the pee out of me (not literally). It’s suspenseful and ominous, with a few good jolts, but not as intense or unnerving — more “funhouse scary” than “I’ll never sleep again” scary (which is more an observation than a complaint). This franchise, like its subjects, might be unkillable.