The Jakarta Post
There is something palpably refreshing about retreating to the air conditioned embrace of a movie theater on an otherwise scorching hot summer afternoon, knowing full well that the moving images you’re about to see do not hinge upon the premise of an intergalactic war between larger-than-life immortal beings.
Such is the unfortunate truth about going to the movies at a time when multi-million dollar “event blockbusters” have become de rigueur. The rest of cinema, i.e. mid-budget studio releases featuring standalone stories about fallible human characters, seem almost revolutionary by comparison.
Make no mistake, the third installment in the Annabelle film series is not a provocative piece of avant-garde filmmaking by any stretch. Serving as an entry in an ever-expanding cinematic universe that includes James Wan’s The Conjuring films, Annabelle Comes Home is still a product of the current franchise gold rush – a cog in a late-capitalist money-making machine.
Despite its corporate origin, however, Annabelle Comes Home manages to enthrall in its pared-down approach to the franchise’s “funhouse horror” formula. Furthermore, its earnest humanity sets it apart from the vast majority of this year’s summer tentpoles in which flesh-and-blood characters are replaced by a stable of broadly-sketched caricatures.
Set sometime between the events of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, Annabelle Comes Home returns to the halcyon days of the mid-1970s, when married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) just closed a curious case involving the titular demonic doll.
Believing the doll to be a powerful beacon that attracts other spirits, the couple then agrees to confine it within a special glass case in the basement of their own home, which also doubles as a mini museum that showcases various paranormal paraphernalia.
Trouble arises after the couple leave town on duty for a day, leaving their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of teenage neighbor Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and her sassy high school friend Daniela (Katie Sarife).
Having dealt with crippling grief following her father’s untimely death, Daniela explores the Warrens’ basement in hopes of finding a paranormal object that could connect her to the spirit of her late parent. Unbeknownst to Daniela, her jaunt in the basement awakens all sorts of evil spirits, including that of the Annabelle doll.
First-time feature director Gary Dauberman, who also wrote the screenplay for the first two Annabelle films and 2017’s smash hit It, knows better than to rely on tried-and-tested jump scare strategies that have been so frequently employed in other horror films.
Although his direction admittedly lacks the flourish of genre savant James Wan, Dauberman consistently delivers atmospheric build-ups to thrilling crescendos. In the film’s cheekiest moments, Dauberman winks at the audience members – whom he knows have grown accustomed to conventional peek-a-boos – and toys with their expectations, often debunking their guesses as to whether a ghostly apparition will pop up in the next frame.
Dauberman occasionally treats the small-scale premise as a ludicrous take on Home Alone, in which demons and astral projections play the role of the Wet Bandits. These playful gestures paint a portrait of Dauberman as an enthusiastic showman.
Fans of The Conjuring films fascinated by the Warrens’ infamous basement storage room are in for a treat. Dauberman pulls out all the stops to make sure that almost every spirit previously contained within the area is let loose and lives up to their respective myths. Rest assured, fan service is cleverly served.
Annabelle Comes Home shines brightest when it focuses on the friendship between its three female leads. The bond that Judy, Mary Ellen, and Daniela develop throughout the film emits genuine warmth that acts as a protective shield against diabolical forces.
Grace, who has proven that she is indeed a force to be reckoned in various dramatic roles, comes of age with her portrayal of Judy Warren. She is both precociously pensive and naive, sturdy and fragile. Grace seemingly channels Haley Joel Osment’s performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense as a child character grappling with the disconcerting ability to see and communicate with the dead.
Meanwhile, franchise mainstays Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are predictably charming in what amounts to extended cameo roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film teases another showstopping musical number similar to Wilson’s Elvis cover in The Conjuring 2, but alas, Dauberman immediately cuts to a different scene as soon as Ed Lorraine picks up his guitar. Mild annoyance is Dauberman’s intended effect, I’m sure.
I use the term “funhouse horror” to refer to genre films that rely on a steady supply of strategically placed revelations designed to catch the audience off-guard at just the right moment, akin to an actual funhouse in your average amusement park.
This is an important distinction in a period when the horror genre explores more experimental avenues, often involving non-linear editing and emphasis on unnerving tone. Ali Aster’s sensational Hereditary and Mike Flanagan’s daring The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, belong to the latter category; whereas the third Annabelle film qualifies as a funhouse horror film.
Both stylistic and narrative modes are inherently equal, for they are mere tools at the filmmakers’ disposal. As such, Annabelle Comes Home is a competently made funhouse horror film that does its routine with aplomb and commendable craftsmanship.
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