The “Conjuring” series is unusual among horror franchises in that its core stories come from true events – in this case from the lives of paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). Adding outside intrigue is the fact that many people doubt the validity of the supernatural, on which the Warrens made their living. “Annabelle Comes Home” (2019), now on HBO, acknowledges this issue, as the Warrens are the subject of a “Heroes or Hoax?” newspaper report in the wake of the events of “The Conjuring” (2013).
Like most of “Annabelle Comes Home,” written and directed by Gary Dauberman (the creator of the “Annabelle” branch of films), it’s a shallow treatment of what could’ve been an interesting issue. This third “Annabelle” picture, set in 1972, has the additionally weird element of not being based on a true story, yet it features the Warrens in an extended cameo and their daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), likewise a real-world person. Judy is bullied in school after the article comes out, but most of the film takes place at home.
“ACH” is ultimately a tame horror movie – often slow and rote, although with some clever elements. It has a decent trio of lead girls, including Madison Iseman (the new “Jumanjis”) as babysitter Mary Ellen, Katie Sarife as “bad girl” (but not really) Daniela, and Grace (so good in “Gifted”).
The Warren home has that big and foreboding feel when the adults are gone and the youths are trusted to be responsible. The titular doll of course gets out of its case via one of the kids’ stupidity and sets about trying to gain a soul. However, we’re never told the process by which Annabelle would acquire a soul; perhaps the technique is mentioned in the previous movies, which I mostly forgot (although I recall that 2014’s “Annabelle” is bad and 2017’s prequel “Annabelle: Creation” is pretty good).
Annabelle is like the Joker in “Batman” 1966 – the perpetually grinning ringleader who draws other evil spirits into her sphere. We get the Ferryman, from whom one’s soul is protected by having coins placed over their eyes upon death (or something like that), and a samurai and a werewolf and a blue devil and a blood-covered bride. A “Conjuring” TV series might be cool with the Warrens (probably needing to be recast with cheaper actors) investigating these cases, but the villain team-up is unsatisfying and confusing here.
In the room where the Warrens keep Annabelle and other evil artifacts, Dauberman gives us the film’s neatest idea: a TV screen that shows a few seconds into the future. It’s fun to figure out what’s going on – along with the terrified Daniela – but I can’t say “ACH” does all that much with this artifact after introducing it.
Serious themes such as the loss of a parent and bullying of the weird kid are present in “ACH,” but the structure is such that those ideas are introduced, then we get the generic horror adventure, and then the themes are brought back and kind of resolved. Although the three girls are likable enough, their life situations don’t resonate.
Then there’s the shortage of explanations for the scary stuff. For example, what’s with the girl who looks exactly like Mary Ellen? Does that mean anything for future films, or is it merely a bizarre scare tactic?
This movie is arguably essential for “Conjuring” Universe fans because it introduces the Warrens’ daughter and some of these weird pieces might fit into the larger puzzle. But if the franchise is trying to whet mainstream viewers’ appetites for September’s “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” “Annabelle Comes Home” doesn’t do the trick.