The so-called Conjuring Cinematic Universe confidently takes another key inspiration from Marvel’s all-dominant equivalent with Annabelle Comes Home by cementing the existence of the ‘horror movie superhero’.
Or, in this case, superheroes in the form of Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 previously, both of whom neatly bookend this ‘interquel’, depicting the carnage wreaked inside their evil-containing fortress of a domestic home when pesky kids unleash the titular Annabelle and the entire contents of their terrifying basement. The Warren’s were, of course, real people – Lorraine died, indeed, earlier this year, and in The Conjuring they were portrayed much more handsomely and less eccentrically than in real life, but they remained nevertheless demonologist investigators in particularly that first movie; a married, far less dysfunctional Mulder & Scully if their focus were demons rather than aliens. This changes in Annabelle Comes Home. They begin to morph from the Mulder & Scully to the Steve Rogers & Natasha Romanoff of the Conjuring Cinematic Universe.
It may be left to the forthcoming The Conjuring 3 to hit that idea square on but Annabelle Comes Home certainly lays the foundations, exploring what happens when you remove those heroes from the narrative.
Annabelle Comes Home uses Ed & Lorraine as book ends. They facilitate Annabelle being brought into the Warren home and conveniently disappear for the main body of the picture. This is intentional.
It’s easy to forget just how The Conjuring made a mark back in 2013. It was considered one of the most terrifying horror movies in many a year, a calculated return to the example of all-American family-bothering chillers that ruled the 1970’s and 1980’s, from The Exorcist to The Amityville Horror through to Poltergeist. Crucially, it takes a cue from those first two examples by being based on documented events, which always adds an additional creep factor to proceedings.
The Conjuring 2 follows suit, even as it places the Warren’s out of their American comfort zone in a stark, kitchen sink 70’s Britain. The franchise that has expanded around these films though has worked hard to develop a recognisable stylistic template which peaks, in a sense, with Annabelle Comes Home. Chief writer (and now director) Gary Dauberman may have placed stories everywhere from rural backwaters (Annabelle: Creation) to Romanian orphanages (The Nun) through to Manson-era California (Annabelle) but you know a Conjuring film now when you see one. They have become their own horror sub-genre.
For me, it all comes down to presentation. These films position themselves as pure horror blockbuster, with a very similar formula, which then is tweaked on an axis for each successive movie. There is a goofiness at the heart of the traditional elements of jump scare slasher which exist in their DNA, not to mention the old-fashioned, ghost story chiller. When they forget this and try to be straight-on terrifying, like with The Nun, these films never quite work as well.
The first Annabelle falls down because it forgets how silly the central concept is, whereas Annabelle Comes Home fully plays like a haunted basement version of Night at the Museum, and revels in it. These are obvious spook scares with an awareness of how bizarro world the Warren’s basement, which we first glimpsed in The Conjuring, actually is – filled to the brim strange arcanum from samurai costumes tormented by the souls of the slaughtered to incarnated hellhounds, ominous soul-taking Ferrymen from Greek myth, through even to creepy, Outer Limits-esque old televisions which reflect your own immediate, deadly, future. It’s all bonkers and Dauberman seems to appreciate that here.
By removing the Warren’s, however, he allows the story to naturally become goofier by design. The pre-credits sequence of Annabelle Comes Home sees the Warren’s witnessing the creepy, demon-vortex power of Annabelle in a setting which more evokes the dark, cold, foggy terror of The Conjuring 2, but once they’re gone and we’re back in the homely 70’s setting of the Warren’s expansive, welcoming home—with only teenagers in good girl Mary-Ellen, rogue Daniela, and their babysitting charge, the Warren’s intense young daughter Judy (imagine a female Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense) for company—the tone changes.
The absence of the grounded adult figures, the bastions of truth and security, provides a license for Annabelle to operate at her most mischievous. Without the heroic Warren’s, who have faced down even deadlier threats in horrific circumstances, Annabelle seems to understand she has a license to warp with the minds of these impressionable children; the psychic, ghost-witnessing Judy, and the contrasting girl next door Mary-Ellen and traumatic devil-child Daniela. Annabelle Comes Home, as a result, goes for broke in exploiting the absence of the superheroes serving as the vanguard against the invasion, and corruption, by the cornucopia of evil in the basement.
Annabelle Comes Home takes place in 1972, between the events of Annabelle and The Conjuring itself, in the midst of circumstances not too dissimilar to our own current landscape; a President with highly questionable ethics presiding over a broken, depressed system being increasingly questioned by a cynical, deeply concerned society. Annabelle here corrupts innocence, targets the youth of tomorrow and quite literally works to take their souls, once the rational, clear-headed adult figures—our heroes—are removed. Does Annabelle reflect our modern anxieties of a creeping malevolence which our modern youth are facing down and combating?
Annabelle Comes Home may have some DNA in the slasher movie but this never descends into a bloodbath, less concerned with horrific gory murder than perversely tricking these youth people and warping their perceptions; the haunted bride seeking vengeance, the spectre of a father angry at his daughter for his death in an automobile accident; even the creepy ‘Feeley Meeley’ game with its disembodied hands and general sense of inappropriate physical contact. Not to mention Annabelle herself as a ghoulish, tainted vision of childhood. Everything feels designed to work, in horror terms, as a physical or psychological threat to *youth* itself. Even the hellhound wants to stop poor Bob, the smitten, nice lad across the street, working as a masculine ‘hero’ figure protecting the terrified women.
Ultimately, Annabelle Comes Home isn’t scary. It naturally seeks to achieve jump scare moments (one snapping box did make me jolt, in fairness) but this franchise scaring you almost feels besides the point. It has now truly embraced its position as the horror version of the MCU – a high-concept, blockbuster series with heroes, villains and with Annabelle Comes Home, the increasing reality that we will one day end to with a horror-Avengers: Endgame – an ultimate mash-up of creepy dolls, murderous nuns, haunted samurai and beyond, all working to torment and destroy the living in a world spiralling out of control. The Warren’s are horror’s first recognised superheroes, in a genre filled with similar archetypes from Father Karras all the way to Laurie Strode who face down different forms of pure evil and stand at the heroic vanguard. Before they were survivors. Now they’re empowered.
Heroism only goes so far, however. Annabelle Comes Home is at pains to stress destroying these forces would only make things worse. Evil can only be contained – and it’ll be the next generation’s task to keep it at bay.
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