3 out of 5 stars

There are horror films that stimulate the mind, using impeccable craft and heady themes to keep audiences unnerved long after the credits roll. And then there are fun popcorn horrors like Annabelle Comes Home.

The Conjuring series of films have a hit-or-miss quality. For every unnerving, tense fright-fest, there’s another that’s droll and boring. The perfect example of this juxtaposition is the previous Annabelle spin-offs: the mediocre Annabelle (2014) and its surprisingly excellent prequel Annabelle: Creation (2017). Annabelle Comes Home falls somewhere in between its predecessors in terms of quality. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house attraction: fun, full of jump scares, but light on substance.

The film follows a paper-thin plot. After their investigation of the eponymous Annabelle doll, paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) have taken it back to their home to be locked away. But when Annabelle is let loose, the Warrens’ daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) and her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) are forced to contend with the evil presences Annabelle attracts.

Annabelle Comes Home makes up for lack of plot with engaging characters that give the story a sense of direction. Mckenna Grace (already a horror veteran at the age of 13) is fantastic as Judy Warren, who’s struggling with her parents’ controversial public image while coming into clairvoyant powers like her mother. It’s a touching performance that truly carries the film. Contrastingly, Judy’s pure-of-heart babysitter, Mary Ellen, is the least developed of the three leads. However, her relationship with Judy is quite charming because Iseman and Grace sell the bond between the two girls thanks to excellent chemistry. The two are joined for their weekend by Daniela (Katie Sarife), Mary Ellen’s friend. I didn’t care for this character at first, finding her to be unlikable and unintelligent. She’s a walking example of the horror trope about characters making dumb decisions—until her motivations are revealed.

The movie also has a fair amount of humour, particularly in the first two acts, mostly from Bob (Michael Cimino) the boy next door, who only wants to woo Mary Ellen but gets caught up in the hauntings. He’s a stock character, but he’s also endearing and adds a welcome dose of laughter in-between the scares.  Annabelle Comes Home is the most lively of the Conjuring films because of how much humour there is, making it an enjoyable change of tone for a franchise that often takes itself too seriously.

Director Gary Dauberman is already familiar with this universe, having scripted the previous two Annabelle movies and The Nun (2018). This proves to be both good and bad news. This latest spin-off undoubtedly feels very connected to its predecessors, especially due to the enjoyable inclusion of Ed and Lorraine Warren (whose scenes are some of the best moments of the film). Joseph Bishara also returns to compose the music, crafting a score that harkens back to The Conjuring (2013), while there are lots of treats and Easter Eggs for fans of the franchise to spot.

That being said, familiarity can be detrimental when it comes to a horror series. Some scares are ripped straight from other films in the series, in “homage”. Multiple times, I found myself thinking “oh, that’s from [insert Conjuring film here].”  This pulls any of the tension out of the sequence because it’s clear where the film’s heading. The storyline is also indistinguishable from the two recent Goosebumps films, amusingly, with a very similar structure and execution.

Certain scares work well, playing against our expectations. And a few are positively shocking, leading audiences to think one thing before pulling back the curtain to reveal something else entirely. A sequence in which a character watches herself on an old TV is particularly effective, ratcheting up the tension with clever foreshadowing. A bridal dress that causes the woman wearing it to become violent creates some entertaining sequences, and new ghoul The Ferryman is perhaps one of the coolest ghosts to ever haunt the Conjuring universe. My money’s on him being the focus of the next spin-off…

Cynically, it sometimes feels like Annabelle Comes Home exists to audition other demonic spirits for Warner Bros. to create more films about. A smorgasbord of phantoms appear towards the end, each with intriguing backstories and creative methods of haunting. The studio is likely monitoring social media to gauge which could headline the next property. That’s not necessarily a knock on the film, as it’s still great fun to see them all come out for a horrifying all-you-can-scream buffet.

If you’re looking for cerebral horror that lingers with you for days afterwards, Annabelle Comes Home isn’t going to be for you. If you’re looking for a horror that reinvents the wheel, you should know not to look in The Conjuring universe. But if you enjoy James Wan’s brand of old-school ghost story filmmaking, then this is for you. It’s a throwback haunted funhouse that’ll be in my rotation each and every Halloween season.

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Cast & Crew

director: Gary Dauberman.
writer: Gary Dauberman (story by James Wan & Gary Dauberman)
starring: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga & Patrick Wilson.