'Annabelle Comes Home' is good, dumb, scary summer fun
Artistically, it's hard to sustain, let alone build on, a popular horror franchise. The cinematic "Conjuring" universe — an interconnected series of hit horror films that began with 2013's '"The Conjuring" — has been a critically mixed bag. (All the films have made money, but April's "The Curse of La Llorona" had the worst opening weekend of the series.)
"The Conjuring 2"? Kind of meh. And that devil-doll spinoff "Annabelle" — an utter stinker, only to be followed by what turned out to be a scary-good prequel: "Annabelle: Creation." "The Nun" just felt like pandering: not terrible, but certainly not necessary.
Now there's "Annabelle Comes Home," the seventh "Conjuring" installment and the third in the stand-alone trilogy of films about a malevolent doll. If it's not quite as good as the doll's origin story, "Creation," it's still way more fun than any sequel — especially one this deep into a franchise — has any right to be.
Returning to the series' roots, the new movie opens on Ed and Lorraine Warren, characters based on real-life husband-and-wife consultants of demonology and witchcraft. Played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, Ed and Lorraine refamiliarize us with the title character — if that's the right word for an ostensibly inanimate plaything that seems to possess the ability to pop up in places you didn't put her — in a short prologue that harks back to the opening scene of "The Conjuring."
They remove the doll Annabelle from a home she had been terrorizing and relocate her to their "artifact room": a deadbolted repository in their basement where they store objects that are haunted, cursed or just plain evil. Into a vitrine she goes — behind consecrated glass reclaimed from a demolished chapel — after a splash or two of holy water and some mumbled prayers by a Catholic priest.
And that should be that. Their young daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), knows better than to mess with her parents' things. Probably because there are signs all over the place: "Danger: Do not touch anything" and "Warning: Positively do not open."
But Mom and Dad are going out of town for a business trip, leaving Judy in the care of her hyper-responsible teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and, without their knowledge, Mary Ellen's not-so-responsible best friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife). You know those movies where the grown-ups are away and some adolescent troublemaker breaks into the liquor cabinet, invites a few too many friends over and almost trashes the house? That's basically this movie — except instead of a crowd of rowdy teens, it's an unholy horde of hellish fiends.
When Daniela sneaks into the artifact room seeking closure with her dead father, she accidentally unleashes a miscellany of horror-movie tropes, like none you have ever scene before — at least not all in the same movie. (Though in some ways, the movie reminds me of "It," in which the shapeshifting boogeyman takes the form of your deepest fear.) In addition to the titular doll, who keeps materializing where you least expect her, "Annabelle Comes Home" features a laundry list of ghouls, goblins, ghosts and ghastly gadgets, including a werewolf, a bloody bride, various corpses, a haunted television set, a murderous samurai warrior, a gargoyle-like demon, a windup organ-grinder's monkey and a super-creepy version of the old Milton Bradley game Feeley Meeley. The film is set in the 1970s and evokes that period nicely, by more than just its appropriate needle-drop soundtrack. It's also surprisingly funny.
It does not, however, reinvent the genre.
To be completely honest, most of the film's best moments consist of simple jump scares and little else. But the connection to "It" is no coincidence. Writer-director Gary Dauberman, making his directorial debut here, co-wrote that 2017 film (and also wrote its forthcoming sequel). Like a skilled, workmanlike session musician who has played with some of the greats, he has learned how to pound on familiar, repetitive chords to create a pleasurable rhythm, one you can feel in your spine. The movie is scary, to be sure, but it's also larky good fun. To quote King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight," the 1973 hit song that plays, cheerfully if ironically, over the closing credits, it's a supernatural delight.
'Annabelle Comes Home'
Starring: Madison Iseman, Mckenna Grace, Katie Sarife.
Director: Gary Dauberman.
Rated: R for some gruesome imagery.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Ritz, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock, Sky Dripping, Southpark, Stone Hill, Westgate. IMAX: Barton Creek, Gateway