Here’s a word rarely used to describe mainstream horror movies: classy. This is exactly how I’d describe Annabelle Comes Home and it’s a favorable attribute to this, one of the best in the growing and mostly great “Conjuring Universe.”
Judy (played by Mckenna Grace) is the sweet but lonely daughter of the newsworthy paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (played by franchise MVPs Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). Watching over Judy for an initially uneventful babysitting gig is Mary Ellen (played by Madison Iseman), who is aware of Judy’s reputation as the “spooky” girl at school and doesn’t care. An uninvited guest shows up, snoops around the Warrens’ off-limits basement, and unleashes the clearly dangerous Annabelle doll from the glass case with the clearly marked “Warning – Positively Do Not Open” sign.
What ensues is like a small-scale, more contained variation on the third act of Ghostbusters, when the storage facility opens and lets all the bad ghosts out. Annabelle Comes Home is kind of a demonic Home Alone and succeeds in letting its young cast run with the story.
This is the working definition of a sleepover movie, the kind of are-you-brave-enough-to-watch-this scary movie that will resonate with teenage babysitters. Helping things considerably is an effective and very-funny subplot, in which Mary Ellen’s crush (played by Michael Cimino, another find) stops by and awkwardly expresses his affection.
Despite a flashy opening scene and their importance to the franchise, Farmiga and Wilson only give extended cameos that bookend the movie. The protagonists are three young women and they’re terrific. Grace, in particular, is excellent, evoking an inner strength but a lived-in weariness to her parent’s occupation and a vulnerability that springs from a crippling loneliness. She’s well-matched with Iseman (far stronger here than in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, where she merely uttered dumb blonde jokes) and a spot-on Katie Sarife; these three carry the film and make their protagonists sympathetic and relatable, even when they’re slowly walking down under-lit corridors that lead to certain doom.
Despite an R-rating, it’s short on actual violence and only shows quick glimpses of anything remotely gory. The rating is about level of intensity, which is considerable. Like the best of these James Wan-produced and/or written works, it’s all about atmosphere and building suspense for a solid hour, then unleashing aggressive scares and the big payoff. A moment where the doll is viewed through different color filters, each one revealing a changing a silhouette, is especially dread-inducing.
The plans to extend this franchise seemed iffy, following the dreadful The Nun and this year’s The Curse of La Llorona (the latter has a strong opener but swiftly disintegrates). Still, both were sizable box office hits. Annabelle Comes Home is a return to form: a stylish, extremely well crafted throwback to the ‘70s supernatural horror movies that emphasized psychological fear over in-your-face blood and guts.
Some of the jump scares are shameless, even for this genre, and this is try-anything horror, as a possessed samurai suit, haunted TV, and a monster dog absurdly turn up at one point. Still, there’s no lack of fiendish imagination here: A new character, referred to as “The Ferryman,” with a tendency to drop coins as a calling card, is as shudder-worthy as The Nun (who still needs a proper movie vehicle).
As a (for now) trilogy of killer doll movies, there’s a lot here to admire. While the middle chapter, Annabelle: Creation, is the most consistently frightening and well produced, the underrated first entry possesses (pun intended) one of the most horrifying opening scenes of any 21st century horror movie. The filmmakers are untested but talented (Gary Dauberman makes an impressive directorial debut with Annabelle Comes Home), getting a great deal of extended mileage out of a villain who never moves and has the same diabolical look on her face. There will be deeper, more profound horror movies this year, but few will be as a plainly effective and efficiently shudder-inducing as this one.
Rated R/106 min.