We needed another entry into the “Conjuring” universe like we needed a hole in the head, but alas – here we are. “Annabelle Comes Home” is the third “Annabelle” flick, and the 7th “Conjuring” film, but I think we can all agree that sometimes less is more. About as unique as mini bar milk, “Annabelle Comes Home” again reminds us that James Wan is to the “Conjuring” universe what Steve Gutenberg was to the “Police Academy” series. Without the special ingredient, the dish never turns out as good.
Committing the same crimes as “Smokey and the Bandit 3”, “D3 : The Mighty Ducks” and “Superman III”, the third in the “Annabelle” series is as deceitful as it is dull. Passing itself or something more by featuring the floating heads of “Conjuring” stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, reprising Ed and Lorraine Warren, on the poster, the duo’s work in the film likely consisted of a lazy weekend and change. Only minutes after the opening title pops on the screen, the “stars” are written out of the movie – leaving a trio of teens to anchor proceedings. Groan.
Essentially a “son of…” (or in this case, “daughter of”) spin-off movie, the likes of which use to align the bottom shelves of Blockbuster video back in the day, “Annabelle Comes Home” pits the daughter of the Warrens (as opposed to the dynamic duo themselves) against the titular demon doll. The film begins with the Warrens bringing home the creepy marionette, and placing it behind glass in a locked box so that the evil it conjures cannot be released. When her parents leave for a night, Judy Warren (Mckenna Grace) and babysitter Mary-Ellen (Madison Iseman) settle down for a night in, only to get disrupted by Mary-Ellen’s frustrating friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), who really only comes by to annoy everyone and fiddle with all the haunted stuff within the Warren’s household. When she gets her hands on the keys to the locked room with all the terrifying trinkets inside, she quickly becomes that girl we all want to slap and touches all the things and releases Annabelle, in the midst of an effort to contact her dead father.
While the first in “The Conjuring” and “Insidious” franchises were brilliantly paced, extremely well written character dramas doused in the occasional, earned scare, the unremitting sequels and spin-offs this ‘universe’ has churned out since have left much to be desired. Where “The Nun”, “The Curse of La LaRona” and the “Annabelle” films flounder is in their execution. Rather than weave together a compelling, motivated ghost story with equally interesting characters that the audience cares about, the latter installments rely on paper-thin plots, inane jump scares and the same style monster-lurking-in-the-corner-of-the-screen style gimmicks to get by. What James Wan – who no longer directs these films, resigning himself to only producing them – did with the first couple of “Conjuring” films and “Insidious” films, for example, was take an interesting story, cast solid actors as equally interesting characters and throw in the odd, smartly and sparingly-used scare device. His films were tense, terrific and at times, truly terrifying.
Where “Annabelle Comes Home” differs, for example, is that it’s devoid of any real suspense, motivation or creativeness. It’s the kind of generic teen horror film that, without the big brand name, would otherwise have went direct to a streaming channel. Rather, the film moves painfully in slow motion and if you weren’t in a theatre you’d probably find yourself screaming “hurry the f*ck up!” Gary Dauberman has seemingly seen a lot of horror movies, evident by all the familiar shots and smoke machine-lit boo moments here, but he lacks James Wan’s skill as a master storyteller. He’s more button pusher on a ghost train at a discount fair here – throwing any cheap gimmick at the audience, hoping they’ll jump. Cue: random ghostly werewolf.
The cast don’t come off looking much better – largely due to their underwritten, bland characters – but Grace (“Captain Marvel”, the upcoming “Ghostbusters”) hints at talent in several scenes… before the dawdling joke of a story takes precedence again. Again, their slow movements override any sense of uneasiness, as they tiptoe from room to room with little to no sense of urgency despite the horrors happening around them. In a film that’s already on the short side, it reeks of an attempt to lengthen the runtime. The thing to note is, it doesn’t need to do this as the flick goes from zero to one hundred awfully quickly, rather than building suspense effectively.
With the first few entries in “The Conjuring” universe such exceptional genre pieces, it’s a shame the franchise had to get cocky and think it could wing a few additional elements by way of shadow puppets, a loud bass and creepy props. Warner : time to put the “Annabelle” franchise back in the box for good and let another capable, unique horror artist have the floor.