Nestled somewhere in the Evil Doll Hall of Fame between Chuckie and The Twilight Zone‘s Talky Tina, the Conjuring franchise’s resident Satanic toy has enough industry juice to have knocked out three spin-off movies — not bad for a scene-stealing porcelain figure originally used as a supernatural conduit by a Manson-lite cult. (Long story.) Just don’t call it “possessed,” however, if you’re around paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). “Demons don’t possess things, only people,” they declare, before their car breaks down, late at night, in front of a fogged-in graveyard, right by a grisly car accident. Annabelle is more of a “beacon” for angry spirits. Wherever she goes, ghostly carnage follows. The couple is lucky to make it out alive. No wonder this dead-eyed manifestation of unholiness has to be locked up in a glass case and blessed by a priest twice a week.
Regular Conjuringverse visitors know that the antique doll resides deep in the Warrens’ basement, a virtual museum of cursed totems and creepy-as-fuck playthings. Casual moviegoers can guess that someone will eventually go down into that basement, ignore the sign that demands no one open the case under any circumstances and rile up the bad-juju inventory. So when the Warrens go out of town for a job and leave their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) under the care of a teenage neighbor named Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), it’s only a matter of time before some curious underage character messes with things they shouldn’t. In this case, it’s the babysitter’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), who has her reasons for wanting to contact the world beyond. Out comes Annabelle. There goes protection from all sorts of hellish miscellany that wants to eat your soul.
The mothership tales about the real-life Warrens’ misadventures has established itself as a reliable, respectful mash-up of ’70s religio-horror, paranorm-core suburban spookiness, finely tuned atmospherics and impeccably timed shrieks and jump scares. As for the Annabelle franchise side hustles, they act like pulpy beta versions of their more prestigious sister series blessed with a dingy, primal-scare–invoking dolly at center stage. Their star is a toy, its face stuck in a rictus. It can, depending on the lighting and camera angle, appear either evil or very evil. These spin-offs sometimes feel like the scary-movie version of the Kuleshov Experiment, in which a portrait of a man staring blankly changes emotional states depending on the shot that follows it. Cut from Annabelle to a bowl of soup, and she seems hungry; cut from her static visage to doors closing of their accord and household items attacking their owners and all manner of chaos, and the scratched-up figurine seems like the choreographer of hell on Earth. It’s such a fine line between silly and bone-chilling.
Thankfully, director/cowriter Gary Dauberman, a veteran of both the series and things-that-go-bump-in-the-psyche storytelling (he was one of several scribes who worked on It) understands that self-serious is not the name of the game this time. If Annabelle Comes Home is the best of the three films to date — a low-ish bar, but still — it’s because he’s well aware that is simplistic story works best as a cross between a haunted house and a carnival funhouse. This is a highly efficient scare machine, trapping its trio of young women in a house filled with board games that sprout hands and a folkloric nightmare known as the Ferryman (“You’ll pay his toll/he’ll take your soul”) and ancient Japanese warrior armor that seems curiously aware of its surroundings. A cute boy (Michael Cimino, no relation to the late director) briefly enters the picture, as does some sort of hellhound creature. When all else fails, simply have someone pulled violently by unseen forces or add unidentifiable whispering voices.
Or better yet, cut to McKenna Grace looking worried, since the underage actor has an uncanny knack for communicating a beyond-her-years sense of dread. No stranger to the supernatural — she was a flashback regular on Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House — she gives the Warrens’ daughter an intelligence and apprehensiveness that feels leagues above your typical scream-queen-in-training performance. Grace makes being in a state of perpetual uneasiness seem effortless. You will come for the brand name, stay for the genre jolts and leave thinking about how this young woman seems genuinely haunted by this experience. That, and just how eerie the simple sight of coins rolling out of the shadows can be. Annabelle Comes Home is not out to reinvent the wheel, or to even rotate the franchise tires. It may not leave you petrified to the core, but it won’t you leave angry, and in this, the Summer of Our Perpetual Disastrous Sequel, that’s no small feat. It is a meat-and-potatoes scarefest, an oddly back-to-basics take on the ghost-story gauntlet run. Compared to the previous films, it’s worth its weight in spare doll parts.