I was stuck in the OC for a limited time and, with a couple of movies to burn (in order to try to get my $25/mo out of the AMC Stubs membership), I found Annabelle Comes Home was playing at an opportune time. There was also a Chinese film called Dancing Elephant that, in complete ignorance, I would’ve rather seen, but when I got to the Orange 30—that’s right, thirty screens—I couldn’t remember what it was and I didn’t see it on the marquee. (I think they had half on one side and half on the other.) After I got my ticket to this, I figured I still had a good shot of catching Dancing Elephant (something I wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I felt justified) only to discover all the interior marquees were off, leaving me no way to tell which screen was playing it. After checking about 12 in the wing of the theater was in, I conceded defeat and settled down to the latest entry in the Warren-verse.
This five year series consists of seven movies grossing $1.9B cumulatively and is the second highest grossing horror franchise next to Godzilla. And so it’s as bland and uninspired as you would imagine, as all the “cinematic universe” movies are. The epitome of “porridge”. But I wasn’t expecting brilliance.
I expected four things, basically: atmosphere with the threat being represented a general air of menace (not the same as atmosphere), reasonably interesting characters, some jump scares and a modicum of Christian iconography. The real Warrens were Catholic, I believe, and fought boogens the old-fashioned way: with crucifixes and holy water.
Two-and-a-half outta four ain’t great, but it ain’t horrible.
The story takes place after the stinger in the last Annabelle movie which I think may be the end of the first Annabelle movie (which we didn’t see). The Warrens take the doll home and put it in their Room Of Evil Artifacts, only to decide it still had power if you just let it hang out, so they put it behind the glass from a tabernacle of a demolished church. The sensitive Lorraine assures everyone that “the evil is contained”. (Someone asks “why don’t you just destroy it?” and Ed just shakes his head condescendingly, which I sorta enjoyed.)
In a move any B-movie would be proud of, the Warrens then run off to their next adventure leaving their much-less-expensive-to-have-on-screen daughter Judy at home with the doll and a Very Responsible Dresses Like Marcia Brady babysitter, Mary Ellen. Playing Veronica to Mary Ellen’s Betty is the feisty brunette Daniela, whose tough exterior is just a front for her grief over losing her dad. Bob, the good kid who works in the grocery store has a thing for Mary Ellen, and rounds out the cast for our adventures.
Hey, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga aren’t cheap, I’m sure, and the kids (I presume) who go see these things would rather see some young cuties cosplaying the ’70s and shrieking their heads off than the serious, intense, sorta sad older people. Anyway, this is how you make a low-budget horror flick for…27 million? Holy cow.
I’m not sure if there’s some pandering going on here or what, but this sorta feels like it’s “Stranger Things” for the ’70s. The movie really seems to enjoy its callbacks: corded phones, board games, small screened but otherwise bulky TVs showing “Captain Kangaroo”, “The Dating Game”, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and I think a horror movie at one point, but that might’ve just been more “Dating Game” clips. It’s charming enough and manages to evoke the ’70s without being sleazy like the actual ’70s version of the movie would have been. (Mary Ellen and Daniela, e.g., are nice to look at but aren’t wearing revealing clothes or put in provocative poses.)
I do have to call BS on the premise that Judy, the Warren’s daughter, not having friends or being able to get birthday guests because her parents were exorcists. That stuff was lit in the ’70s. (One of the more popular “board games” of the ’70s being “Ouija”—not at all a game, but just an actual Ouija board. From Parker Brothers!) Daniela’s fascination would’ve been the norm. Also, one of the kids rejects her invitation by saying, “My parents say I’m not ready to process death yet.” It was an intentionally funny line, but more of an ’80s thing. The ’70s were more your parents slowing down the car a little as they push you out the door with “Wedon’tknowtheWarrensbuttheyseemniceandanywayyouaregoingtohavetodealwithweirdoswhenyougrowupsopickyouupinfourhours!”
Anyway, the key point is that Daniela, who knows not what she does, opens the glass case. This frees Annabelle to do mischief. The Annabelle movies are not—very wisely—genuine “creepy doll” movies: Annabelle is not animated. You never see her move unless gravity is the proximal cause. She shows up places and bad things happen around her. It’s as good an excuse for a “funhouse” horror flick where things happen purely for effect because the boogen in question feeds on fear (or whatever).
The first half of the movie is a nice ramp-up with good characters, and the last half is all spooky stuff, which was also a nice choice. There’s a good variation on the “stick your hand in the box” thing, similar to Phantasm but with a twist. (The Warrens, amusingly enough, have two Feely Meely games: One for playing, and on in the Artifact Room that is clearly possessed.)
So, if the acting is good, and it is—the girls are all seasoned veterans of shows I’ve never heard of, much like Kaya Scoledario from Crawl—and the characters are good, which they are—Daniela is sympathetic, for all her mischief, and even Bob proves his worth—and there are good choices made narratively, and reasonable feeling artistic choices (unlike some of the cheaty-feeling bits of The Curse of La Llorona) why am I so “meh” about it?
It goes back to what I said up front: This movie is porridge. It’s skillfully made porridge, no doubt. But there is very little surprise to be had here. A good funhouse horror flick uses its license to do literally anything to present you with some outrageous imagery or mind-bending concept, and we get very little of that here. And I’d go even further to suggest stuff like that really isn’t wanted, either by studios or audiences.
As bad as it is for the regular load of Disney/Marvel gruel, it’s worse for horror movies. Very few genuinely scary horror flicks make money big box office. Psycho, The Exorcist and The Shining being the only exceptions I can think of, unless you want to count Jaws as well, which I consider an adventure film. But to the extent that people like being scared, the general audience tolerance is low. So this movie will make back about ten times its budget (worldwide) and we’ll get the next seven movies in the franchise which will also doubtless be competently made blandness.
And that’s a little hard to get excited about.