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 always steadily consistent.
“Annabelle Comes Home,” the third “Annabelle” film, which marks the directorial debut of writer Gary Dauberman, could actually be the best in the trilogy.
Dauberman has penned the scripts for 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,” which dives deep into the case history of 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 objects 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 against it, it’s too late. And when Daniela unleashes Annabelle, she unleashes 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 Warren’s deep case history. It feels like a tribute to the couple’s long and remarkable career in paranormal investigation. The tribute is aptly timed, as the real Lorraine passed away in April.
“Annabelle Comes Home” is a torch passing to a new generation, featuring Grace as daughter Judy, gifted with similar clairvoyant powers as her mother. The 13-year-old Grace is uncommonly mature for her age, and the film would not be as compelling without such a strong actor in this role. But to call her a “scream queen” would be a misnomer. Grace knows when silence and stillness is far 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 of extraordinarily long camera takes, and the 1970s look in costume and production design (the Warrens’ home is oh-so-groovy). In what is essentially a haunted-house film, Dauberman creates an atmosphere of incredible tension as the three young women (and a courtly young neighbor, Bob, played by Michael Cimino) tangle with various 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.
★★½ “Annabelle Comes Home,” with Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino. Directed by Gary Dauberman, from a screenplay by Dauberman and James Wan. 106 minutes. Rated R for horror violence and terror. Opens Tuesday, June 25, at multiple theaters.