In a summer of sequels, third and fourth films in a series have to prove the worthiness of their existence, and some this season haven’t risen to the top. But while it’s easy to scoff at another killer-doll film in the Conjuring Universe, the spooky franchise is stealthily successful and steadily consistent. “Annabelle Comes Home,” the third “Annabelle” film in the CU, marks the directorial debut of writer Gary Dauberman, and could actually be the best in the trilogy.
Dauberman penned all three “Annabelle” movies, as well as screenplays for “The Nun” and the 2017 reboot of “It.” He’s an obvious choice to take on “Annabelle Comes Home” (based on a story by Dauberman and original “The Conjuring” director James Wan), which dives deep into the case history of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) through an ingenious conceit. While Ed and Lorraine head out on assignment, their daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), remains at home with her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), whose meddling friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) makes her way into the room of cursed and haunted artifacts the Warrens keep under lock and key.
Daniela’s objective is to find closure with the spirit of her dead father, but she’s not ready to face the menacing Annabelle. Although Judy warns her, it’s too late. And when Daniela unleashes Annabelle, she releases just about every evil spirit contained in the room: a werewolf, a haunted wedding gown, a ferryman who shepherds spirits to another realm. The cursed room is a smart device to get a glimpse of the Warrens’ deep case history and feels like an aptly timed tribute to the couple’s long and remarkable career in paranormal investigation.The real Lorraine died in April, following Ed’s death in 2006.
“Annabelle Comes Home” passes a torch to a new generation, featuring Grace as daughter Judy, with a clairvoyant gift similar to her mother’s powers. The 13-year-old Grace is an uncommonly mature actor for her age, and the film would not be as compelling without such a strong performer (though the “Annabelle” films have always offered excellent platforms for young actresses). But to call her a “scream queen” would be a misnomer. Grace knows when silence and stillness are more effective than hysteria, and she portrays Judy as a girl who has seen far more than she should in her young life.
“Annabelle Comes Home” maintains the Conjuring Universe’s style and aesthetic with the 1970s look in costume and production design (the Warrens’ home is oh-so-groovy) and extraordinarily long camera takes. In what is essentially a haunted-house film, Dauberman creates an atmosphere of incredible tension as the three young women (and a courtly neighbor, Bob, played by Michael Cimino) tangle with spirits, ghosts and ghouls. Dauberman’s control over the camera and mastery of suspense is impressive, especially for a first-time director. But the film is strung too tightly, rarely breaking bad, denying the cathartic chaos one craves in this kind of film. Strangely, “Annabelle Comes Home” needs more jump scares — or maybe this jaded critic has just seen it all by now.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Annabelle Comes Home’
Rated: R, for horror violence and terror
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts June 26 in general release