Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
ANNABELLE COMES HOME
After previous stand-alone features ANNABELLE: CREATION and ANNABELLE showed how the unblinking, uncanny eponymous doll came into existence and wreaked havoc on her unsuspecting owners, it’s pure joy to see writer-director Gary Dauberman take a Pixar-ish “What if…” approach to his fantastically frightful feature, ANNABELLE COMES HOME. This third chapter in the demonic spirit conduit’s spin-off series shows what happens when the evil inside gets loose in a home museum filled with other haunted, cursed objects d’art. Hell almost literally breaks loose.
The WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE-looking malevolent doll is back and better than ever in the franchise stalwart’s capable hands. Dauberman cleverly crafts a disarmingly fun fireworks festival of frights, with a climax of scares, universal terrors and fears of the deep, dark recesses of the unknown. Simply put, it’s a kaleidoscope of nightmare fuel.
Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have just taken possession of Annabelle – and locked her away for everyone’s safety – when they’re called away on a business trip. The world is skeptical of their practices and they, along with their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace), are taking the brunt of its cynicism. If it’s not a newspaper article touting “Hoax or Heroes,” it’s the school bully spreading mean, untrue rumors about Judy’s home life. Judy, in particular, is becoming more withdrawn and forlorn because of embarrassment, but also because she is beginning to show signs of clairvoyance, like her mom.
The Warrens hire babysitter extraordinaire Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to watch Judy while they’re gone. She’s resigned to spending a quiet weekend with her young charge, baking a birthday cake and playing board games. That is until her brunette bestie Daniela (Katie Sarife) shows up, determined to get her in all sorts of trouble. And boy howdy does Daniela unleash monkeyshines! She steals the keys to the family’s locked artifact room – the place where they store all their possessed, cursed goodies. Dauberman shows Daniela running her fingers over all the trinkets as if she’s a character in a Terrence Malick film running their hand through a wheat field. However, the one particular item that draws her attention is Annabelle, whose case she opens and forgets to lock. Whoops.
Dauberman, working from a story also by producer James Wan, ramps up the tension as the spirits make their spooky presence known. Whether it be Daniela’s deceased dad who screams in her face (one of the more jarring and deeply affecting jumpscares), or the deranged bride who stalks Judy (which makes another lasting impression), or the TV on a seven-second delay with its unsettling imagery, the auteur perfectly paces the proceedings. He even blessedly works in tension relief sequences, mostly involving the Warrens’ next-door neighbor, Bob (Michael Cimino), who’s got a chaste crush on Mary Ellen. Occasionally, Dauberman combines both laughter and fear to sell the idea of these characters in peril adeptly. That said, his homage to THE FOG works to varying degrees depending on the audience, who may or may not enjoy the intermixing of CG with the practical effects.
First-time director Dauberman conjures (pun intended) unnerving atmospheric dread by way of the impeccable technical craftsmanship of the people in charge of sound design, editing and cinematography. The soundscape created by Aaron Glascock leads the audience on an audible journey – especially when applied to the sounds that make Annabelle seem ominous. There’s a rumbling, resembling the low-timber sound of the sustained thunder of an earthquake. When the talismans within aren’t acting up, the artifact room sounds hollow as if the air has been sucked out of the space. Cinematographer Michael Burgess’ lighting in the split-level house brings out an undercurrent of suburban anxieties. In the transitions, his camera work (along with editor Kirk Morri’s cuts) help build narrative momentum.
Perhaps what’s most effective in ANNABELLE COMES HOME isn’t necessarily the alluring terror, but the layered characters to which we grow attached. Otherwise, the frights would be meaningless. Though the film is bookended by the beloved married couple, demonstrating their loving bond and abilities, the middle is a female-centric storyline with fairly dynamic heroines. Daniela isn’t a one-note rabble-rouser. Her insecurities that cause her to act out stem from real, rooted emotional trauma that’s as sincere as it is touching. Mary Ellen’s journey is about risks and trust. Judy’s is about embracing her inner gifts. And even Annabelle is cast as more of a devilish Puck-ish sprite than in her previous standalones.
With a narrative that’s in constant motion and the tandem act of the camera work and editing emphasizing its fluidity, ANNABELLE COMES HOME is textured differently than the other films CONJURING Universe, yet it fits comfortably right into the legacy.
ANNABELLE COMES HOME opens on June 26.