Director: Gary Dauberman
Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga
If you have been wowed by Annabelle: Creation, the 2017 installment of the Conjuring franchise, you would do well not to walk in expecting Annabelle Comes Home to be half as exciting or even remotely ground-breaking. The prequel may have imbued in your movie-going experience quite a few unforgettable, heart-stopping moments, however, the 2019 chapter of the Conjuring series is most likely to feel like an initiation into R.L.Stine’s Goosebumps universe. Frightening, but restricted to the peekaboo kinds.
It’s the late 1960s. Demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren are on their way back home after rescuing two nurses from the clutches of Annabelle, the eponymic doll – by carrying her home. In their car. As predicted, the doll summons spirits to attack Ed, almost running him down, soon leading them to cotton on to the ominous doll’s doing. Once home, the Warrens ensure Annabelle is safely placed in a glass case, and a local priest called in to bless the case, ensuring the “evil is contained.”
Unsurprisingly, with a reticent, disturbed ten-year old in the vintage house with only a bubbly but imprudent babysitter (along with an even stupider friend) for company, the recipe for confining the evil to the Warrens’ ‘artefacts’ room’ where Annabelle is housed – looks rather undercooked.
So one night as the Warrens leave for an overnight investigation of a case, their daughter Judy and babysitter Mary Ellen, left to themselves, indulge in some homemade baking. Oblivious that the snug, rather dreamy ambience was soon to be punctured by Daniella, the babysitter’s troublemaker friend who drops in uninvited. It takes us only 10 seconds to understand that she hasn’t stopped by the Warrens’ house for striking small-talk with Mary Ellen. She clearly has dangerous intentions in mind – and as she sneaks into the Warrens’ office and picks up the keys, we know that horror would soon be unleashed.
As Mary Ellen and Judy bask out in the sunshine, Daniella takes her own sweet time touring the artefacts room, taking care to touch anything and everything she could lay her hands on. This includes a cursed wedding dress, an old TV set, a vintage watch, jewellery box and a hellhound. But nothing grabs her attention like attention-grabbing Annabelle, who, for her sprightly makeup and wide eyes, looks oddly inviting. Daniella fidgets with the doll, summoning spirits in the room and attempting to connect with her dead father. And as is the norm, she accidentally leaves the glass case ajar, permitting Annabelle’s horror to permeate the walls of the Warrens’ home.
From that point onward, Annabelle Comes Home becomes a scare-fest of a pre-teen and two other teens screaming, howling, crying and running around the length and breadth of the house – trying to escape the monstrous doll’s wrath. As the kids scurry about averting the deluge of doomed objets d’art lunging for their lives, hiding behind couches, peeking under the beds, answering cursed telephones, sniffing for clues and helping themselves by digging their hands under a Feeley Meeley board game, you feel startled, visibly spooked – sans any bed-wetting chills.
After Daniella survives the most cursed room on planet earth (yeah, kill me for giving out spoilers), it becomes amply clear that writer-director Gary Dauberman (who also wrote the Annabelle prequel) has no plans of doing away with any of the three scared-to-death girls. Once you realize the same, Annabelle Comes Home feels like a fun, adventurous ride through a fictional ghost town in an upscale urban mall or a jumpy Scary House experience – to be laughed at, and even cherished. For instance, this is notably established when Mary Ellen’s crush Bob – and a fourth wheel in the scheme of things – becomes an inadvertent target one of the cursed objects let loose due to Daniella’s folly. And you cannot help but chortle when Bob finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the supernatural rampage – minutes into serenading his lady love.
These are a few moments that make this chapter playful and forgivable – primarily, because by and large, the makers of the film do not intend to carry forward sinister remnants of the Annabelle experience into the next chapter. Given that the filmmakers have a whole room of baleful artefacts to write spin-offs on, we can heave a sigh of relief and safely shut the lid on Annabelle Comes Home.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (playing the Warrens) have little to do in this instalment, and are mostly used to lead the opening sequences into the meat of the plot. Consequently, the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the three girls – McKenna Grace (as Judy Warren), Madison Iseman (Mary Ellen) and Katie Sarife (Daniella) – and they do not disappoint one bit. Iseman and Sarife have plenty to do – especially the latter – who pulls off the mischievous, rebellious, daredevil yet grief-stricken Daniella packing in a punch of foolhardiness while also compelling viewers to empathize with her irresponsible ways. I look forward to seeing her in many more horror films, better still, if she gets an opportunity to act in consecutive Conjuring chapters. Iseman is effective and plays the role of the protective babysitter with appropriate urgency.
It is, however, McKenna Grace’s acting, that I found wanting in many aspects. Apart from the fact that Grace’s character was only scratched on the surface but not probed deeply enough, restraining her role to a psychic who only had to thrust the cross to ward away evil spirits, was dispiriting and quite a let-down. Truth be told, I was expecting to see Judy Warren get possessed and wreak havoc in the Conjuring world. Beat the Warrens at their own game (inspiration anybody?) Grace, who won the award for the Best Young Actor for Marc Webb’s Gifted (2017) is abundantly talented and certainly has more to surprise the audience with – full-blown evidence of which I wish to see the next movie she acts in. The spookier, the better.
Annabelle Comes Home may possibly be the first of the Conjuring series to have draw a fine balance between mind-numbing horror and playful paranormal wrapped in a sheen of bizarre. Perfect for hard-core horror buffs, but also digestible for fragile souls eager only to relive their Goosebumps’ days. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, do watch this adventurous tale of Annabelle – possibly, the world’s laziest doll who literally only has to grimace long enough into the screen and cause things to get upended.