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Non-Review Review: Annabelle Comes Home

At its core, Annabelle Comes Home is the Captain America: Civil War of the Conjuring Shared Universe.

That is a very strange sentence to type, and more than likely a very strange sentence to read. However, it speaks to very strange times. It seemed highly unlikely that The Conjuring would spawn Hollywood’s second most successful cinematic universe, despite efforts by various other studios to emulate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, even the Warner Brothers trailers before Annabelle Come Home reinforce how dramatically the franchise has moved the needle. Blockbuster franchise horror cinema is a thriving market even outside these films. Later this year, Warners have IT: Chapter 2 and Doctor Sleep.

Hello dolly.

However, even the mere existence of Annabelle Comes Home is an illustration of the success of this particular horror franchise. This is a major cinematic release at the height of summer. It is not even counter-programming like, for example, Midsommar. This is event cinema. As with The Conjuring 2, this is also very clearly designed in the language of blockbuster cinema. Like Civil War, this is nominally the third film in its franchise; although the nature of that franchise has changed dramatically with each film. As with Civil War, the production team have tethered this sequel to the heart of the shared universe.

Annabelle Comes Home is a fascinating, if not entirely successful, slice of blockbuster horror that seems to exist primarily as a showcase for the success of its own franchise. It’s sturdily and reliably constructed, if a little lacking in its craft and technique. It balances this lack of finesse against a playful sense of humour and a slyly subversive sensibility, resulting a solid addition to the shared universe.

Nobody ever asks the killer doll their side of the story.

The most striking aspect of Annabelle Comes Home is that it brings back Ed and Lorraine Warren. Played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the pair established the whole Conjuring shared universe back in 2013. Although The Conjuring was nominally focused on the Perron family in Rhode Island, it was really a showcase for the paranormal investigators that they drafted in to investigate their case. Ed and Lorraine Warren served as something of the Nick Fury to this larger universe, living connective tissue that could tie together a wide range of paranormal phenomenon.

This was most obvious with the couple’s basement. The basement in The Conjuring is a delightful absurd spectacle. It seems like the production team watched Cabin in the Woods and decided to play that film’s broad parody incredibly straight. Cabin in the Woods spoofed the internal logic of supernatural horror by tempting its young cast with an entire basement packed to the gills with cursed items, a sort of heightened and grizzly form of “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The basement in The Conjuring serves the same purpose, but is played entirely straight.

Casting a shadow.

The basement is littered with potential spin-off material, talismans of ghosts and demons who seem to be auditioning to carry their own spin-offs. So far, the Conjuring franchise has launched two horror movie stars. Annabelle first appeared in the basement in The Conjuring, before going on to launch her own spin-off franchise; that franchise would take the demonic doll from sixties urban ennui in Annabelle back to fifties rural isolation in Annabelle: Creation. Although the creature didn’t originate in the basement, a satanic nun got a dry run in The Conjuring 2 before holding down a starring role in The Nun.

Naturally, Annabelle Comes Home features its own core cast of ghosts and ghouls that may be pitching their own standalone feature. There is a homicidal wedding dress that “changes” anybody who wears it and “makes them violent.” There is the ominous “Ferryman”, who has the serial killer gimmick of leaving coins in the eyes of his victims. There is also the “Black Shelkie”, to add a little international flavour, a monstrous Scottish wolfman with a thing for atmospheric fog. The narrative logic of Annabelle Comes Home is very much “more is more”, an example of adapting the blockbuster playbook for the horror genre.

Good Grace!

If one were cynical, it might be argued that the decision to stuff Annabelle Comes Home with supporting horrors reflects a lack of faith in the movie’s core character. After all, despite carrying three whole Conjuring spin-offs, Annabelle is a fairly inert protagonist. She doesn’t even move. She mostly just sits there, looking creepy. “Demons don’t possess dolls,” Ed helpfully explains in the opening scene, although it feels more like an excuse than an explanation. Still, Annabelle Comes Home pitches its central character’s static nature as a virtue rather than a vice. She becomes something of a signal beacon.

What distinguishes Annabelle Comes Home from these earlier spin-offs is the direct connective tissue between it and its parent franchise. Wilson and Farmiga reprised their characters for a short appearance in The Nun, but Annabelle Comes Home marks the first time that Ed and Lorraine Warren have played a major supporting role in a Conjuring spin-off. More than that, as the title implies, Annabelle Comes Home takes the title character back to where she began. It brings her into the custody of the Warrens. The bulk of the horror in the film unfolds within the Warren household, a space from The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2.

Just in case.

In keeping with this sense of franchise-building, it is notable that Annabelle Comes Home focuses on Judy Warren. Judy is the daughter of Ed and Lorraine, played by up-and-coming actor McKenna Grace. The film repeatedly stresses that Judy may have inherited her mother’s gifts, the capacity to see beyond the mortal plane. There is something just a little bit cynical in all of this, as if the groundwork is being laid for a hypothetical “Phase II” of this Conjuring-verse, as if the franchise is looking for somebody “young enough so they can carry this franchise ten to twelve years.”

This is why Annabelle Comes Home feels so much like Civil War. The film feels more like an interquel between the second and third Conjuring films than the third installment in its own franchise. The core premise of the film has Annabelle tricking a poor teenager into accidentally unleashing all the demonic horrors lurking in the Warren family basement, while Annabelle herself seems to watch with that static-yet-gleefully-demented look upon her face. Even the drafting in of the Warrens cements the correlation between Annabelle Comes Home and Civil War, recalling the presence of franchise-starter Tony Stark in Civil War.

Putting the matter to rest.

The result is a film that is fascinating to watch, even if it occasionally stumbles. Annabelle Comes Home is appreciably less polished than the other Conjuring films. It is the theatrical directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, a franchise veteran who wrote The Nun and the two previous Annabelle films. Dauberman is mostly competent, but horror often lives and dies by its execution. Dauberman lacks the sort of flair necessary to elevate Annabelle Comes Home as an effective horror movie.

It’s hard to quantify the sort of skill necessary to make a horror film work, and it is often overlooked. It’s perhaps something close to a sense of timing and rhythm, knowing how long to hold a shot or how best to cut a scene. Annabelle Comes Home feels “off” in a number of small ways. Most notably, Dauberman consciously eschews the familiar early “long take through the physical space to build a sense of place” that has become a staple of the series, even though there are sequences in the film that seem perfectly suited to it. At other points, he holds the camera too long on his actors, rather than what they are looking at.

To coin a phrase.

To give Annabelle Comes Home some credit, the film compensates by being more playful than the other entries in the franchise. Perhaps reflecting their desire to blend traditional horror movie scares with a modern blockbuster sensibility, the Conjuring films have always had a stronger sense of humour than many other entries in the genre. However, Annabelle Comes Home veers occasionally into full-on horror-comedy. This works much better than it should, perhaps because the film isn’t as effective at building mounting tension as the other Conjuring films, but also because it seems just a little self-aware.

After all, as much as Annabelle Comes Home is about monstrous and paranormal evil, it is also a film rooted in the comforts and familiarity of a long-running franchise. Annabelle Comes Home is perhaps much more at home than a horror movie should be, aware of how even the uncanny and the grotesque can become reliable franchise building blocks. Annabelle Comes Home is a mass-produced crowd-pleasing horror film that hits a lot of its narrative beats and fulfills its purpose within the shared universe. It helps that the film seems to concede that this might not leave space for too much genuine horror.

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