Annabelle Comes Home takes the The Conjuring's iconic doll and gives it an entire new league of demon cohorts to partner with. The film is a concept rich with potential, but ultimately the 'Demon Avengers' approach to the story turns out to be surprisingly toothless, despite the implications of its R-Rating.
The story picks up right after the interlude of the original Conjuring movie, which first introduced us to the Annabelle doll. Ed and Lorraine Warren manage to get the doll home and lock it away in its case, and for a moment, all seems secure. That all changes the day that the Warrens take a case out of town, and have to leave their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) home with her favorite babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). Mary's trouble making friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) as at the Warrens' doorstep as soon as they're gone, eager to check out if the rumors about the demon hunters are true. Daniela's own emotional baggage makes her vulnerable to Annabelle's manipulation, and soon the evil doll is free and running amok in the Warrens' house, with all the other spirits from their collection in tow. Annabelle's goal is clear: she wants Judy's soul in order to reclaim a living body again - and the girl's psychic power along with it.
Annabelle Comes Home marks the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, who has served as the writer for the entire Annabelle franchise (including its chapter), and its spinoff, The Nun. It's clear that Dauberman understands the world of The Conjuring and its characters better than just about anyone, as Annabelle 3 is a very solid character piece, which examines the next generation of demon fighters through the lens of Judy Warren. The film is also surprisingly solid in its narrative of how and why Annabelle gets loose, with a trio of teen characters (in addition to Judy) who are all more fleshed out and three-dimensional than the usual horror genre caricatures. The actors playing those teens (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle's Madison Iseman, Girl Meets World's Katie Sarife and newcomer Michael Cimino) all have great screen presence and charm. The strength of the cast sells the scares and carries a lot of the lighter moments, which is both a gift and a curse for Annabelle Comes Home.
The real problem with this chapter of Annabelle's story is that Dauberman gets so enamored with his cast of characters that he just can't find the teeth to truly put them in peril. Annabelle Come Home should be the most terrifying and deadly chapter of the franchise so far, given its premise of a demon convention getting loose in a haunted house - but by the end, it feels more like a version of Adventures In Babysitting that got a little intense, rather than a Rated R installment of Annabelle.
That's not to take away from Dauberman's efforts: the first two-thirds of Annabelle are a steady flow of creep-outs and scares, as the tension builds around Annabelle's escape, and slow corruption of the other artifacts in the Warrens' holding room. That makes it even more surprising that Dauberman can't stick the landing with a satisfying climax, or give the story any real weight of danger or consequence. Instead the film goes for a feel-good ending that feels totally out of place for this franchise. Don't bother sitting through the end credits hoping for one last scare - there are none.
In the end, Annabelle Comes Home falls square in the middle of the franchise trilogy. It's much better than the muddled and schlocky first installment, but never comes close to matching the intensity and polish of the sequel, Annabelle: Creation. It's a good enough time for longtime fans of The Conjuring franchise, and a good matinee scare for everyone else.
Rating: 3 out of 5