'Annabelle Comes Home': Film Review

The spell is weakening.

Original 'Conjuring' franchise stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson appear with Mckenna Grace and Madison Iseman in the third feature in New Line’s haunted doll horror series.

With more than a half-dozen features now filling out the Conjuring universe — including three Annabelle titles and the surprisingly successful release of The Nun last fall, followed by the less well-received The Curse of La Llorona earlier this year — New Line's horror franchise has generated more than $1.5 billion globally. That impressive track record can certainly be attributed in part to the dedicated involvement of producer and original Conjuring director James Wan, who along with Peter Safran has provided consistent creative vision at the rate of almost one release a year since 2013.

Centered on the writings and experiences of renowned paranormal investigator Ed Warren (played by Patrick Wilson throughout the series) and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), the films' grounding in allegedly real hauntings (which also spawned the Amityville Horror titles) has been fundamental to their enormous appeal for horror fans.

With Annabelle Comes Home, however, franchise screenwriter and now director Gary Dauberman departs from real-life events to extend the Conjuring mythology in an almost entirely fictionalized direction, with noticeably less impact. Still, with the rare coincidence of two demonic doll features debuting less than a week apart, there's little doubt that Annabelle Comes Home will not only dominate Child's Play, but likely many of the weekend's other new offerings as well.

After filling in the backstory of the cursed doll's idiosyncratic origins in Annabelle: Creation, the latest installment circles back to the very beginning: the introduction to the first Conjuring film. A seeming throwaway moment inserted to establish the Warrens' professional credentials, the 1968-set scene finds the intrepid couple evaluating the strange circumstances surrounding a child-sized doll known as Annabelle, clothed in a frilly white frock. Two frightened young nurses in possession of the haunted toy gladly relinquish it to the Warrens after they determine that a demon has taken over the strikingly unattractive plaything in an attempt somehow to possess a human soul.

Annabelle Comes Home picks up as the Warrens cautiously transport the doll back to their home in an early scene that reveals the premise for all the mayhem that eventually ensues. After their car breaks down outside a cemetery on a dark, mist-enshrouded country road, Annabelle's presence in the back seat rouses the dead from their graves. Convinced it's "a beacon for other spirits," Lorraine attempts to warn Ed just before he almost gets run down by a semi-trailer.

Once they arrive safely back home, the most distinguishing feature of the Warrens' modest split-level Connecticut house is revealed: the dimly lit "artifacts room," where the couple keep many of the spiritually tainted objects retrieved from their harrowing cases. Among the most recognizable pieces, some glimpsed in previous films, are a haunted wedding dress, formerly worn by a murderous bride; a demented wind-up monkey toy; an eerily off-key music box; and a vast assortment of evil appliances and trinkets.

Like a queen installed upon her throne, the Warrens place Annabelle on a chair inside a locked glass cabinet as the centerpiece of their collection, followed by the local parish priest's recitation of protective blessings and the sprinkling of holy water. The religious rite seems to immobilize Annabelle for about a year, before an uninvited visitor disrupts the enforced calm of the artifacts room. Things start to go sideways on the evening that the Warrens' 10-year-old daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) plans to celebrate her birthday early with teen babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) while her parents are out of town on a case.

Unexpectedly, Mary Ellen's friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) shows up on the pretext of joining Judy's birthday celebration, although she's really pursuing her own agenda. Still grieving over the recent death of her father in a traffic accident, Daniela has come seeking spiritual reconnection with her dad, convinced that the Warrens' paranormal expertise can provide guidance. She attempts to interpret their work by sneaking into the locked artifacts room after stealing the key from Ed's study and proceeds to examine closely and even touch many of the tainted objects stored there for safekeeping.

Her greatest mistake, however, is approaching Annabelle's glass case, pointedly ignoring the prominently posted "Warning: Positively Do Not Open" sign, and releasing the doll's demonic influence throughout the house. Soon Annabelle animates the knife-wielding bride, a grim reaper known as The Ferryman and numerous other threatening entities and objects to terrorize Judy and the two teens.

With nearly all the action limited to an afternoon and a seemingly endless night of horror in the Warrens' maze-like home, Dauberman gives himself a compact, confined space to work with. Although it makes for an initially absorbing narrative and filmmaking challenge, with nowhere for the characters to run or hide, the thrills and shocks gradually become repetitive, as the writer-director recycles his own material, forcing the girls to evade the same threats again and again.

Another dubious decision ends up sidelining Wilson and Farmiga, who have effectively channeled the Warrens' devoted personal and professional collaboration over four of the franchise's films, in favor of focusing on the trio of young women. While they're a capable group, they just don't have enough life history to adequately amplify the threats they are facing, leaving superficial fear and piercing screams to substitute for genuine terror.

Dauberman orchestrates a dramatic array of supernatural entities to frighten the girls, with the bloody bride perhaps the most threatening, other than the silently menacing Annabelle. Fluid camerawork and tightly controlled editing, which transform the Warrens' home into a genuinely haunted house, emphasize Dauberman's dark vision, abetted by franchise vet Joseph Bishara's shiveringly shrill score.

Production companies: New Line Cinema, Atomic Monster, The Safran Company
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga
Director-screenwriter: Gary Dauberman
Producers: Peter Safran, James Wan
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Dave Neustadter, Victoria Palmeri, Michael Clear, Michelle Morrissey, Judson Scott
Director of photography: Michael Burgess
Production designer: Jennifer Spence
Costume designer: Leah Butler
Music: Joseph Bishara
Editor: Kirk Morri
Casting: Rich Delia

Rated R, 106 minutes