"Annabelle Comes Home" and she's got a diabolical bag of tricks up her sleeves, the film's insular chamber-piece stylings lending a renewed sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings. The film's success as a 106-minute creepathonone with a welcome helping of heartcomes not a moment too soon following 2018's messily underwhelming "The Nun
." Indeed, this is a return to form for The Conjuring Universe; at its best, it approaches the jittery heights of 2013's "The Conjuring
" and 2016's "The Conjuring 2
" while fitting snugly within series lore.
It has been one year since married paranormal investigators Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) brought home the possessed Annabelle doll, containing her evil within a locked glass case in the artifact room of their suburban Connecticut home. Heading out of town on an overnight trip, they leave daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). A quiet evening of pizza and cake-making for Judy's birthday is interrupted by a visit from Mary Ellen's friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), whose curiosity over the Warrens' many infamous cases leads her to a snooping session in the artifact room. Her hope is to try to contact her recently deceased father, but she gets far more then she bargained for when she unlocks Annabelle's case and the doll subsequently goes missing.
With the exception of a terrific prologue following Lorraine and Ed's perilous journey transporting Annabelle to their home for the first time, and a final scene that ends things on exactly the right note, "Annabelle Comes Home" is contained as a narrative within a single 24-hour period. By narrowing focus and only having to juggle a handful of charactersyoung Judy, babysitter Mary Ellen, Mary Ellen's best friend Daniela and neighborhood crush Bob (Michael Cimino)writer-director Gary Dauberman (screenwriter of "The Nun
," making his helming debut) finds the freedom to inventively use his house setting and rather ingenious concept to their fullest. This may be the third picture with "Annabelle" in the title (following 2014's "Annabelle
" and 2017's "Annabelle: Creation
"), but the creepy, smiley-faced doll is used here as more of a conduit in which to unleash the rest of the artifact room's haunted and demonic items on the trapped and terrified occupants.
One of the darkly fantastical pleasures of the script is the way it casts a spotlight on so many of the items seen but never discussed in previous "Conjuring" films. Giving too many of them away would take away certain surprises, but an especially chilling use of a cursed wedding dress in one particular scene reminds of, and then arguably outdoes, the standout nun set-piece from "The Conjuring 2
." Dauberman expertly plays with the backgrounds of his and cinematographer Michael Burgess's (2019's "The Curse of La Llorona
") shots throughout; there is always something there to catch with one's eye, and much of it only adds to the eerie atmosphere. A few jump scares score their intended jolts, but perhaps the moment to get under this viewer's skin the most is a subtler one: Daniela, standing in the backyard, seeing her dead father looking back at her through the sliding door.
The late-'60s/early-'70s production design by Jennifer Spence (2019's "Shazam!
") outdoes itself, every detailed frame full of shag carpeting, vintage cake mixes and games (Milton Bradley's 1960s party game Feeley Meeley plays a pivotal role), a record player providing just the right spooky accompaniment at just the wrong time, and a spinning-wheel lamp illuminating Judy's bedroom in the vivid color scheme of Dario Argento's "Suspiria
." The recurring use of Badfinger's "Day After Day" is one of the film's most indelibly chosen details, a perfect song cue that begins to ominously merge with Joseph Bishara's (2018's "Insidious: The Last Key
") music score.
"Annabelle Comes Home" is a gas, a clever mood piece with all the requisite suspense one could hope for. By delving into a slice of the Warrens' lives as a relatively normal and loving family, the film elevates itself all the more. It's nice to see them relate to each other and have conversations unrelated to ghastly goings-on, and here director Gary Dauberman gifts audiences with this added dimension. Vera Farmiga (2019's "Godzilla: King of the Monsters
") and Patrick Wilson (2013's "Insidious: Chapter 2
") provide classy, charismatic support as Lorraine and Ed, but this installment belongs to a trio of wonderful young actors: Mckenna Grace (2019's "Captain Marvel"), vulnerable and keenly intuitive as Judy Warren; Madison Iseman (2018's "Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween
"), down-to-earth and likable as the responsible and caring Mary Ellen; and Katie Sarife, an eye-grabbing, emotionally layered standout as Daniela, her spunky personality attempting to mask the guilt and hurt she feels over her dad's death. Their night of phantom-prowling terror may not give Annabelle herself much to do, but one barely notices when there's so much else lurking in the shadows. "Annabelle Comes Home" works like gangbusters, a funhouse-style thriller with an emphasis on the fun.