The cold shiver from a dead-eyed doll effectively extends the Conjuring universe.
After the critical failure of “The Nun,” some doubt began to creep into the horror franchise that James Wan built. Admittedly, that film made money, but the it failed to meet the brand heights of the “The Conjuring” and its frightful sequel. Luckily, with “Annabelle Comes Home,” producer Wan and company are smart to start the movie with popular demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). This brave and heroic twosome are the beating heart of the series. And with production on the third “Conjuring” film now underway, success of this one is important.
When the Warrens take possession of the demonic doll Annabelle, they are forced to put in place protections aimed at containing its evil. This involves a blessing from a priest, Father Gordon (Steve Coulter), and imprisoning the creature in a special glass case. Of course, the doll is placed in the Warrens’ artifacts room in the basement of their suburban home (think a very Brady dwelling).
The Warrens are called away on a job and have to leave their young daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), at home with a babysitter named Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). What responsible parent leaves their impressionable daughter in a house surrounded by demons, you ask. Well, you don’t know Judy.
Mary Ellen’s best friend Daniela Rios (Katie Sarife) has recently lost her father in a car accident and hopes that the Warrens’ collection might be able to get her in touch with the other side. Naturally, with the Warrens out of town and her friend with the keys to the house, Daniela sees an opportunity. But it’s Annabelle who seizes the moment, and this great terror might be released surrounded by a number of scary spirits just itching to steal your soul.
“Annabelle Comes Home” is an expertly crafted jump fest. The scares come quick and extend over the film’s refreshingly brief running time. Mckenna Grace is very good as the Warren’s daughter, who shares her mother’s gift for talking with ghosts. And the screenplay, by Gary Dauberman from a story by Wan, is hip enough to know when it is taking the supernatural elements a bit too seriously. This self-aware quality makes the film funnier than I expected, which helps to break the tension that could have become false, evoking unintentional laughs.
Daniela’s story, in which she is searching for her father’s spirit in order to cope with guilt, proves to be emotionally connective. Credit has to go to Farmiga, who really pours it on with motherly charm that sadly was missing in her icy turn in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” But most viewers will be watching this third “Annabelle” entry for the spine tingles and jump scares that come aplenty. And writer Dauberman, who makes his feature directing debut with “Annabelle Comes Home,” has a great grasp on the classic horror format. Every bump in the dark will give you a jolt.
An improvement over “The Nun,” “Annabelle Comes Home” is a lesser “Conjuring” spin-off but with enough hair-raising bite to keep fans interested until the next “Conjuring” episode drops in 2020.