Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

I hated the first Annabelle film. The second was passably okay. This movie eventually bests them both, but jeez is it ever an exhausting journey getting here. The problems that hinder this series from fully blossoming into the Evil Doll splatter fest it so easily could be are consistent throughout each entry. Firstly, despite her effectively spooky visual design, Annabelle herself is embarrassingly underutilized. She’s a cursed doll who does not move or stab or kill or speak on her own accord, robbing the series of the usual payoffs of the Evil Doll horror genre. Instead, Annabelle is a talisman used to extend the reach of The Conjuring franchise’s function as the Spooky MCU. Her titular homecoming here refers to her arrival in the basement of the paranormal-investigator couple The Warrens, who tie this loose extended universe of undead creepy-crawlies together with a bookended cameo in each picture. From there, Annabelle is sidelined in her own movie, as always, to make room for non-doll creatures to be brought in to individually audition for their own spin-off series, expanding the Conjurverse even further instead of paying off their full potential in the moment. Unless you’re crafting soap operas or wrestling angles, it’s an awful approach to storytelling, as it always promises satisfaction next time instead of emphasizing in-the-moment, self-contained stakes. Thanks to every single movie production company wanting what Marvel has, though, it’s now the norm in commercial filmmaking, which is getting increasingly frustrating.

All that said, Annabelle Comes Home at least openly accepts its role as a franchise brand extender whereas previous entries in its series have downplayed that function as much as they can – saving teasers for Conjuring spinoffs like The Nun for their post-credits stingers. Here, Annabelle operates as the Nick Fury of the Warrens’ basement, assembling undead ghoulies like The Ferryman, The Killer Wedding Dress, and The Werewolf Ghost to torture the teens she shares a house with, effectively auditioning each of them for their own Spooky MCU spinoffs. She’s contextualized as a “beacon for other sprits” within the movie to justify this indulgence, but that throwaway dialogue does little to reconcile with the fact that this is an Annabelle movie where Annabelle disappears for long stretches of time to make room for another Conjurverse monsters. Once again, this is an evil doll movie that has no interest at all in being an evil doll movie, which is maybe Annabelle’s true curse. The good news is that Annabelle Comes Home eventually does pack the screen with plenty of non-doll spookies off all shapes & sizes. Once all of Annabelle’s fellow spirits are set loose around the Warrens’ house to torture the Generic Teen Babysitters inside, the movie does reach a few blissful moments of midnight movie mayhem. It just takes a lot of franchise place-setting effort to make it to that point, when you could just watch a standalone free-for-all like Hausu or The Gate and get ten times the payoff for 1/10th the effort.

I don’t care about the Warrens. I rarely tune into dispatches from The Conjurverse unless the individual film in question happens to touch on a subgenre I generally have a weakness for – like the killer doll movie. All I wanted to see here was a creepy doll torture some teens, and I was made to settle for the swerve of a decent haunted house movie instead, just like how Annabelle: Creation was a ghost story and the original Annabelle was a Rosemary’s Baby bastardization – not one genuine killer doll movie among them. It’s disappointing, then, to see this potentially bonkers free-for-all dampened so extensively by its franchise-building requirements. We eventually make our way to a very simple, contained haunted house story but not until after a lengthy frame story wherein the Warrens take a joy ride through an Ed Woodian graveyard only to disappear until the film’s conclusion. Also, because each monster’s appearance here is just an appetizer for a possible future spin-off, we only get a small taste of creatures like Werewolf Ghost so that we’re hungry for more Werewolf Ghost Content the next time it’s offered to us; and the cycle continues. Annabelle Comes Home is an adequate enough mainstream horror flick. It may even be the best Annabelle film to date, once it fully warms up. It just also participates in the worst tendencies of franchise filmmaking of the 2010s, which is getting more exhausting the more ubiquitous it becomes.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nun (2018)

The modern mainstream horror is a lot like a haunted house attraction at an amusement park. The carnival barker outside promises more thrills than could ever possibly be delivered. The story told inside is never nearly as important as the craftsmanship of individual images and the establishment of a spooky atmosphere. The most you can really ask for is to be startled a few times by a well-executed act of misdirection; the communal experience of getting spooked in public before returning to your normal life, unaffected but amused, is entirely the point. By those metrics, The Nun is a perfectly average modern horror flick, delivering no more & no less than necessary to skate by as a passable novelty entertainment. Its phenomenal jump-scare trailer beckons passerby to wander to the ticket booth for the soul-shaking freak-out of a lifetime, only for the film to deliver the bare-minimum genre goods instead. Its narrative is a flimsy excuse to string together a series of cheap-thrill spooky images & startling noises. The communal experience of jumping out your seat with a hundred fellow novelty-seeking strangers in the film’s opening weeks is the best it can offer, a cheap thrill that’s quickly forgotten as you wander off to the next attraction.

The Nun’s mediocrity is announced as soon as its exposition, where the film is framed as an out-of-sequence spinoff from The Conjuring franchise with a “Previously on . . . “ flashback befitting a TV series. What follows is a prequel that over-explains the origins of a creepy cameo character from the original Conjuring movies, adopting the same approach as the Annabelle spinoffs. The Annabelle movies mire their origin story mythology in story, however, whereas The Nun does very little to pretend that it is anything but a haunted house attraction. In this case the haunted “house” is a ghostly convent, where The Gates of Hell were once opened to allow a demon to crossover & possess the unsuspecting nuns who live there. We join the action in the 1950s, where a young nun-to-be, a priestly “miracle hunter,” and their French-Canadian scamp of a tour guide investigate the mysterious phenomena of the haunted convent, only to be startled from all directions by the horrors they find inside. Big budget nunsploitation set dressing & familiar Gothic horror atmosphere are only mood-setting novelties meant to flavor the standard demonic jump scares & spooky Catholic iconography The Nun delivers. The characters are practically ushered down an assembly line conveyor belt for their own turn to be startled by the attractions inside, swiftly moving along to the next crop of willing victims can have their fun.

If The Nun were going to be anything more than a perfectly mediocre mainstream horror, its best chance would have been to lean into its value as a cheap novelty. Part of the reason that the film’s trailer is such a delight is that it wastes no time with narrative concerns and instead isolates a single scene of jump-scare misdirection, delivered without context. The film itself unwisely dilutes those types of thrills with an abundance of context that could only be described as a waste of time, especially when deployed to nest the film within The Conjuring’s overarching mythology. The machine-like efficiency of last year’s IT adaptation, where tension was built & released with regular-interval jump scares like a rhythmically reset rotary dial, is an excellent example of how that formula can be executed at a higher, more memorable level. As is, the pacing is a little too languid for the film to fully satisfy as anything more than a loose collection of cheap thrills & spooky nunsploitation-themed images. Any intense praise or condemnation of The Nun can only be hyperbolic, as the film is the exact medium of what big-budget horror looks like the 2010s. The Nun deserves neither ecstatic championing nor intense negativity – only mild, temporary amusement. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, the latest entry in The Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation, has quickly earned the reputation of being a huge improvement on the film that came before it, to the point where its predecessor is entirely skippable so that you can get to the good stuff. 2014’s Annabelle was indeed a huge letdown even for the most dedicated of evil doll horror films, essentially burying what’s an incredibly powerful villain design under a hopelessly generic Rosemary’s Baby riff nobody asked for. That setup made it near effortless for its prequel, Annabelle: Creation, to exceed expectations, something Lights Out director David F. Samberg does with ease. Samberg’s slick production design & impressive control over jump scares & haunted house atmosphere makes for a surprisingly decent Annabelle corrective, delivering an evil doll-themed major studio horror similar to the machine-like precision of last year’s financially beastly adaptation of IT. As someone who’s always a sucker for evil doll horror as a genre, however, I have to admit I still don’t believe the Annabelle franchise is living up to its full potential. Creation is a well-made major studio horror movie, but it’s one that largely ignores the brilliant design of the evil doll at its center; it’s hardly an evil doll movie at all.

A 1940s doll maker & his religiously faithful wife lose their young daughter (named Annabelle, duh) in a freak accident, sending their lives into a depressive tailspin. Over a decade later, they open their home as a makeshift orphanage out of religious duty, bringing a fresh crop of young girls & their corresponding caretaker nun into the now-haunted house. Enter the titular doll Annabelle, whom the dead daughter’s spirit has taken residence in and uses to scare & maim her soul-weary parents’ new boarders. Unfortunately, the doll itself is used more as set dressing and a talisman than a direct threat in the film’s various scares & kills. Samberg has a sharp mind for tapping into the nightmare logic of a scared child: lights go out without explanation, hallways stretch into infinity, traditional sources of terror like a ghost under a sheet or the crack between a bed & wall are reinforced with a genuine sense of dread. This collection of haunted house scares feels entirely separate from Annabelle herself, however. Instead of directly using her in the film’s kills, Creation brings in other threats in the form of creepy nuns & demons made of black smoke, unsure how to deliver on the basic pleasures of a creepy doll horror flick.

As with a lot of films in the post-MCU mode of franchise filmmaking, Annabelle: Creation feels like it’s torn in too many directions trying to satisfy its position in a larger, franchised story. The movie concludes with a lengthy, unnecessary epilogue connecting it to the opening minutes of the first Annabelle feature, establishing above-and-beyond continuity for a film practically no one remembers or values. It’s also tasked with teasing an upcoming horror film about demonic nuns to be set in The Conjureverse, plainlly titled The Nun. What really bothered me, though, is that Creation finds its scares in the dollmaker’s haunted home, not the evil doll he created, which connects the film to the haunted house themes of the original The Conjuring movie at the expense of a super creepy doll that’s used as a prop instead of an active player. I can totally back Annabelle: Creation as a well-made major studio horror film and an improvement on the previous Annabelle entry. Hell, I’d even cite it as an improvement on Samberg’s work in Lights Out, a film I found to be a thematically repugnant carbon copy of The Babadook. It’s still not as great as a proper Annabelle film could be, though, which won’t arrive until this franchise involves its killer-looking doll in its onscreen kills, something that should’ve been a given from the start.

-Brandon Ledet