The latest in the Annabelle franchise, spun from the same yarn as The Conjuring films, has a scene where a rocking chair rocks by itself. This trope has been around for at least half a century, and for good reason: there’s the implication that the ghost, (or entity, if we want to be politically correct), occupying the chair is comfortable, twiddling back and forth with its fingers interlocked, in the same way a pleated octogenarian would contemplatively shuffle the afternoon away. It’s the preeminent horror image because it takes a device suited for soothing, and turns it into a taunt. ANNABELLE COMES HOME understands this, in the same way it acknowledges the specular surface of a television can generate horror through reminding a character of their own ontic hell. It’s a well-made picture, fun and scary, and first-time director Gary Dauberman fires on all cylinders (which may very well be, in fact, the distorted, damned barrels of ghostly guns).
In ANNABELLE COMES HOME, our heroes—the amiable sitter Mary Ellen, the exorcist superstar Warrens’ clairvoyant daughter Judy, and Mary Ellen’s mercurial friend Daniela—inadvertently release the spirit of Annabelle and must do battle with supernatural forces beyond their comprehension—in order to escape with their souls intact. Dauberman, previously writing for IT and THE NUN, stumbles a bit out of the gate, his characterizations somewhat messy and initial banter a little dull. The major points are there, though: we get a sense of Daniela’s abrasiveness and meet Bob, Mary Ellen’s love interest, an awkward cashier who lives right across the way. Dauberman certainly doesn’t know how to stage confrontations between Judy and schoolyard bullies, scenes whose unruly, expositional nature threaten to destabilize the picture before it can even get off the ground.
What I look like before my morning skincare routine
The movie is fairly quiet for almost half its runtime, with Dauberman utilizing Judy (the keen Mckenna Grace) to staunch effect, the young girl displaying an extraordinary understanding and appreciation for her parents’ unconventional and often traumatic work. Once night falls, Dauberman goes all in—not in the way you might expect, though. The filmmaker deploys jump scares sparingly, instead focusing on that long forgotten and aged principle of horror: suspense. It’s a resoundingly confident directorial debut, in particular making strong use of a panning camera—the helmer will pan from a cursed heirloom to someone’s disturbed visage, leaving negative space on either side of the frame from which a spirit might attack. They don’t though, where in a lesser-restrained film they might, and, even worse, the ghost might sprint while they do so (your regularly scheduled reminder—running isn’t scary).
A substantial sequence of the film takes place in the basement of the Warren household, with Daniela trapped with the sadistic Annabelle doll. Annabelle, thankfully never gifted a voice (or changing facial expressions), is a deliciously sadistic creature, mining Daniela’s grief over a lost family member to drive the girl into delirium. I mentioned in the introduction a television: it’s probably the film’s best set piece, and—without saying too much— it works so well because Daniela herself doesn’t seem to be aware of the full implications of the scare. The television sequence stands out because of its bedside comfort with fatalism, the idea that Daniela is already mid-annihilation unknowingly and the television is simply milking her terror for a captive audience. I don’t see many modern horror movies toying with this notion—in my mind, it makes sense to have a character’s fate play out in a metadiegesis, as it’s one of the few ways for the character to spectate terror, like the audience is, at the same time they are being subjected to it.
What I look like after my morning skincare routine
Dauberman isn’t sure of when to quit sometimes—a werewolf made out of fog is one shocking choice—and a final plot contrivance proves somewhat insulting to the integrity of Judy’s character—but it’s hard to shake the feeling of satisfaction of which the film instills so bountifully. It’s even got a fun romance thread weaved through it! Not to mention the film has an actual ending (instead of ending on a cynical, jump scare beat that guts the film of good will, like most of these movies seem to do). ANNABELLE COMES HOME is nothing remarkable or groundbreaking, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun—and for many it will prove a lot more fun than that “Elevated Horror Film” that’s also out right now. When all is said and done, sometimes you just need something that’s a little more down-to-earth.