REVIEW – ‘Annabelle Comes Home’ is a completely agreeable thrill ride

When the terrifically thrilling The Conjuring debuted back in 2013, few could have predicted it would ultimately launch a cinematic universe which has stunningly earned over $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office from its six films. Yes, you read that figure correctly. By expanding one movie into a seemingly never-ending franchise of sequels and spin-offs, there’s a horror goldmine to be tapped here.

The latest spooky chapter from this unexpected saga is the sequel to the prequel to the spin-off featuring cinema’s latest creepy doll no one wants in their playroom. While Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t exactly break new ground within the well-worn paranormal genre, there’s still hefty entertainment to be found within this breezy and enjoyable chapter that’s ultimately just great popcorn cinema.

The sequel begins with an appearance by The Conjuring lead characters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), as they transport our titular evil doll Annabelle back to their Connecticut home. After their car breaks down right outside a fog-covered cemetery (of course it does), Lorraine soon realises the doll is a beacon for other spirits. Once they’re back at the family home, the Warrens enshrine Annabelle in a locked glass cabinet within their expansive basement den of artifacts and objects they’ve collected from their various paranormal cases over the years.

After a local priest casts a protective blessing over the cabinet, thusly containing the evil within, the Warrens can rest easy knowing Annabelle is trapped, so long as no one dares open her door. You can see where this is going, right? One year later, and the Warrens are called away on business, leaving their beloved 10-year-old daughter Judy (a terrific Mckenna Grace) in the care of their trusted teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), who decides to celebrate Judy’s birthday early.

Crashing the birthday festivities, Mary Ellen’s best friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) rocks up at the Warren residence, under the fake pretence of joining the celebration. For deeply personal reasons, Daniela is desperate to enter the Warrens’ forbidden room of spiritual objects and seek a connection with the spirits of the afterlife. When Judy and Mary Ellen head out rollerskating, Daniela seizes her moment, despite Mary Ellen’s protestations not to go snooping.

Finding the keys to the locked chamber in Ed’s study, she proceeds to enter the dark and gloomy vault, foolishly touching and inspecting practically every cursed object within. When she arrives at Annabelle’s glass cabinet, she careless ignores the “Warning! Positively Do Not Open” sign on the door, unlocks the case, and unwittingly unleashes Annabelle’s signal to demonic forces. It’s not long before the Warrens’ room of artifacts come to life, creating all sorts of hell for the three young girls.

Among them, we have a knife-wielding psychopathic bride, a haunted television set (yes, just go with it), an ancient samurai warrior, a werewolf-like creature called the Hellhound, a demon known as The Ferryman who collects dead bodies with coins placed over their eyes, an antique wind-up organ-playing monkey toy, an out-of-tune music box, and even a possessed typewriter. Look, not everything is quite as terrifying as the film tries to portray. But if a typewriter typing on its own gives you the heebie-jeebies, perhaps you’ll be cowering in fear.

And that’s the inherent question asked of any horror film like Annabelle Comes Home; is it scary? While there’s plenty of truly unsettling moments and an unrelenting aura of dread once the action truly starts, there’s unlikely anything here to truly haunt your nightmares. There is a stream of obligatory jump scares to launch you out of your seat. It’s pointless to bemoan these by now. They are a staple of horror film culture, causing plenty of shrieks followed by embarrassed laughter from an audience.

The film takes an exhaustively long time to really get going, instead serving up a lengthy portion of its running time establishing its characters and their environment. What that offers is a chance to genuinely connect with these three young girls, making their night of torment far more affecting on an audience. We’ve suffered through too many horror movies lately with genuine disregard for the humans who make up their plot. It’s refreshing to find something of this genre place as much importance on its characters as it does its frights.

In the absence of her parents as our protagonists, Judy makes a fascinating character to ultimately drive this film. Cruelly bullied at school because of her parents’ headline-stealing activities, Judy has inherited her mother’s supernatural gifts, which she’s naturally struggling to accept. Grace handles the character with skill beyond her years, crafting an empathetic and loveable lead who truly feels like the offspring of Farmiga’s Lorraine.

While Mary Ellen isn’t given all that much to do but play faithful guardian to the young child in her care, Iseman is gifted a charming young romance plotline with Bob (Michael Cimino), an awkward teenager who works at the local grocery store. When the poor lad comes courting Mary Ellen at the Warren residence, he too is pulled into Annabelle’s twisted games, which offers Cimino the chance to almost steal the entire film. But the real scene-stealer is Sarife, whose Daniela is a contradiction of verve and vulnerability. She’s effortlessly cool but tragically damaged, and Sarife consistently shines throughout.

When all is said and done, Annabelle Comes Home is a completely agreeable thrill ride, albeit one that doesn’t exactly seek to transcend expectations. With more genuine humour than any other chapter within this cinematic universe, it’s a far lighter experience, mixing enough laughs amongst the dread to create a more rounded result. If you like your horror with lashings of gore and misery, this ain’t it. And that’s entirely fine.

Instead, Annabelle Comes Home understands its place and what its audience came to see; a spooky doll doing a bunch of spooky things with a calamity of other spooky ghouls. With enough suspense and tension to keep you hooked and a gang of wonderful new characters to spend 106 minutes with, it’s just good, harmless fun. Lord knows we need some of that these days.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga
Director: Gary Dauberman
Producers: Peter Safran, James Wan
Screenplay: Gary Dauberman
Cinematography: Michael Burgess
Music: Joseph Bishara
Production Design: Jennifer Spence
Editor: Kirk Morri
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: 27th June 2019 (Australia)