‘Annabelle Comes Home’ Offers up ’70s Nostalgia for Enjoyably Trashy Popcorn Spooks

In another era “Annabelle Comes Home” would be a favorite for the drive-in movie crowd. It’s the latest chapter in the Conjuring universe, but it’s also a change in style from the other “Annabelle” movies, going for a classic teen summer thriller vibe. Yes, there are demonic forces at work once more with slamming doors, possessed TVs and hellhounds chasing love-struck crooners, but it’s delivered with a rather fun retro spirit. Great art it may not be, decent popcorn boo fest it is.

The story opens in the 1970s with the return of demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), as they collect the ominous doll Annabelle from a group of terrified young adults who have been the latest victims of the doll’s curse. After determining it is a conduit for spiritual forces, the Warrens lock away Annabelle behind a display case in their house, among a vast collection of demon-haunted items. A year later, and around the events of “The Conjuring,” the Warrens have to go for a while, leaving their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) with babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). It’s going to be Judy’s birthday but her life isn’t exactly pleasant. All the kids are spooked away by her parents’ reputation. Dropping by the house is Mary Ellen’s high school classmate Daniela Rios (Katie Sarife), who is fascinated for personal reasons by the Warrens and wants to get a peek into what supernatural objects they have at home. Daniela takes advantage of a moment where she’s left alone to go into the Warrens’ collection and accidentally opens the case containing Annabelle. You already know what happens next.

“Annabelle Creation” pretends to be nothing more than a guilty pleasure haunted house movie. Making his directorial debut is Gary Dauberman, writer of the last three “Conjuring” universe scream fests, including the unimpressive “Annabelle,” the slightly better “Annabelle: Creation” and “The Nun.” He also scribed the highly successful 2017 “It” remake. Dauberman has learned from dabbling in so much horror material, wisely choosing to put emphasis on atmosphere over gore in “Annabelle Comes Home.” He seems to be trying to take notes from director James Wan, who before taking off to sea for “Aquaman,” directed the visceral and impressive “The Conjuring” and “The Conjuring 2” and helped craft the plot for this movie. Like Wan, Dauberman pays many visual homages to cult horror films from the 1970s and 1980s, borrowing close ups and creepy pans from “The Omen” and “Poltergeist.” Notice the scenes where Judy sits alone in a school courtyard or stands in a hallway, and in the distance we see the blurred, eerie figure of a priest. The opening title crawl is wonderfully vintage, and even the end credits look taken from the infamous early, strobe-lighting trailer for “The Exorcist.” These references should be mentioned because no doubt some will scoff at the unavoidably absurd elements of the story in “Annabelle Comes Home” without appreciating the film buff technique. These stories are always meant to be absurd and beyond belief. Dauberman doesn’t even dare put the “based on a true story” title card in this one, although there is a loving tribute in the end credits to the real Lorraine Warren, who died earlier this year. What matters is how the filmmaker approaches the material, whether it’s done at least with some style or none at all.

Without Dauberman’s vintage approach this would be a snoozer of a rehash. What makes it fun is the 1970s setting, the way rock hits from the decade are played in the background and the characters feel borrowed from grindhouse flicks. The Warrens are gone for most of the movie, so the entire focus is on Judy as the offspring with emerging psychic powers inherited from mom. While the last two “Annabelle” movies were gothic romps, featuring attractive nuns and old priests doing battle with Beelzebub, this one is a babysitter nightmare all set inside one house for one foggy night.  High school clichés are tossed in but they’re not necessarily bad, like Mary Ellen having a crush on a supermarket cashier, and fellow classmate Bob (Michael Cimino). Bob will get some advice about swooning girls from a stoned out pizza delivery guy (Bill Kottkamp, who looks perfectly out of “That 70’s Show”) who recommends he use music. Bob brings his guitar, sings outside the house only to then be chased by a “Hellhound,” one of the entities unleashed by Annabelle. A scene involving Bob hiding inside a henhouse is B-movie hilarity. Daniela’s character has a bit more depth, and her reasons for wanting to know about the Warrens make perfect, even endearing sense, at least enough to make her into more than just a convenient target for the ghouls. McKenna Grace, seen earlier this year in “Captain Marvel,” handles her role well, not overplaying it and giving it some intelligence. It’s a classic case of talented actors making subpar material work better than it should.

But let’s be honest, fans are walking into this movie for the scares. Nothing really ties it to the long-winded storylines of the last two “Annabelle” movies, and only the opening scenes connect to the narrative of “The Conjuring.” We all know the doll is bad. Dauberman instead dabbles in scenes where doors pound, Daniela gets trapped in front of an eerie television where her horrific future is shown just before it happens, and a cursed wedding dress wanders around the house, evoking a knife-wielding apparition. If you stick your hand in a board game something bad might happen, and eventually that recurring horned demon from all these movies will appear and try to puke possession into one of the girls. What Dauberman does is not overpack the movie with this stuff, instead he builds to each sequence, creating more tension than just jump scares (although there are plenty of those). The ending is a bit of a mess, only because all the chaos comes to a sudden, simplistic halt that makes you wonder why nobody thought of the solution sooner. But to reiterate, this is not meant to be a contender for inclusion in critical theory lectures.

Bottom line, if you’re already a big fan of the whole “Conjuring” franchise this is one of the better spinoffs, certainly the best of the “Annabelle” line. If you’re the kind of viewer that enjoys nostalgia for enjoyably bad 70s and 80s ghoulishness, it’s a guilty entertainer. If you find all this to be absurd, in which case you might not have even made it to the end of this review, then “Toy Story 4” is still playing down the hall.

“Annabelle Comes Home” opens June 26 in theaters nationwide.