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Annabelle Comes Home

If Toy Story 4 or Child’s Play (2019) made only $50 million worldwide in its entire theatrical run, that would be the immediate end of a franchise, several careers, and maybe even a whole studio. But if Annabelle Comes Home — another franchise tentpole film released within the same few days — only ever made $50 million theatrically, that would be twice its reported production budget. More than enough to justify another round of sequels.

Everything about The Conjuring Universe is ugly and cynical. From the very outset, it was bad enough that we had a horror movie based on the “true story” of a disproven hoax from a family long since considered frauds even within the paranormal community. But then the “true story” gimmick was abandoned for the sake of AnnabelleThe Nun, and other ghost story franchises without even the flimsiest pretense of basis in reality. That’s not even getting started on The Curse of La Llorona, a shallow and grotesque display of appropriating Mexican folklore (which, to my understanding, has fuck-all to do with Ed or Lorraine Warren) in an apparent attempt at courting a non-white demographic.

And of course, the only reason we have this mish-mash of franchises is because WB tried to chase the “shared universe” bandwagon that everybody boarded and tumbled off after The Avengers. It was a transparently stupid move that only worked because the Conjuring films are so quick and cheap to churn out. Thus the filmmakers get a dependable return with the bare minimum of creativity and effort, leaning on their PR team to hammer The Conjuring Universe brand into our skulls 24/7 until that shit gets turned into gold.

In fact, that’s probably the craziest thing about this superfranchise: Nothing about it should work, and yet it somehow does.

Annabelle Comes Home makes seven Conjuring movies in six years, all made with the same basic house style. That’s not even counting all the imitators who’ve attempted to crib from the superfranchise’s playbook. You’d think it would’ve gotten old by now, but no, it’s still perfectly effective.

Every jump scare, every setup, every fake-out, every reveal, every shot and cut and musical sting… They all work beautifully. The filmmakers are such masters of timing and misdirection that even as they play within the rules we know so well, they can still hit us with something scary and unexpected.
But then, the problem was never with the horror. The problem has always been with the lore.

Because this isn’t technically a Conjuring movie proper, Ed and Lorraine Warren (respectively played once again by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) only briefly appear at the beginning and the ending, with no appreciable effect on the plot. Instead, because this is technically an Annabelle movie, this is a “haunted house” plot focused on a young girl: Judy Warren (now played by Mckenna Grace, after Sterling Jerins aged out).

The Warrens are heading out of town on another paranormal investigation, leaving Judy at home. Enter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), who has no appreciable personality or identity aside from being a devoted babysitter/big sister figure for Judy. She’s an asthmatic when the plot says she is, and that’s basically it. Still, Mary Ellen makes for an effective sounding board against Judy, if nothing else. And Judy herself combines the role of “creepy young girl” with “paranormal expert”, which actually makes for a neat subversion of tropes.

But then we have Daniela (Katie Sarife), the teenager who sticks her nose into Mary Ellen’s babysitting job so she can go around rooting in the Warrens’ Secret Room of Horrors — you know, behind the quadruple-locked door and the signs that basically say “WARNING. Do not go in here and do not touch anything, you stupid fuck” — so she can go in there and touch every damned and cursed thing in there. And it’s not because Daniela’s a skeptic or anything, she actually wants to commune with the afterlife.

That’s when the movie completely lost me. Yes, she has a tragic backstory involving her recently deceased father and the movie works twice as hard to make the character sympathetic after the fact, but I honestly didn’t care. There’s no coming back from all of that.

Rounding out the cast is Bob (Michael Cimino), a local teenage boy with a crush on Mary Ellen. He’s entirely useless. He’s only occasionally good for a bit of comic relief, and typically not even then.

So, what about Annabelle? Well, it turns out that the doll itself was never really possessed. Rather, the doll serves as a kind of homing beacon to attract other malicious spirits. Thus the Warrens’ Locked Room is truly and completely transformed into the basement from The Cabin in the Woods, as each haunted item represents a new demon.

This is an obvious ploy to throw various ideas against the wall and see which of them could potentially carry their own spinoff franchise. We’ve got a creepy board game (nothing like Ouija, of course), we’ve got a homicidal bride, we’ve got a samurai ghost, and even a goddamn werewolf. My personal favorite is probably the psychic television, though the Ferryman had a pretty sweet coin gimmick.

I’ll grant that these new ideas provided some welcome variation on the superfranchise’s house style, with new surprises and scares. And yes, this did occasionally lead to some neat scenes and sequences. But that doesn’t mean any one of them is enough to power their own feature film, much less a franchise. It comes back to the same problem we have with The Nun, the Crooked Man, and every other big bad in this superfranchise: There’s nothing unique, iconic, or memorable about any of them. The best we’ve got is Annabelle, and she’s not even the only creepy homicidal doll in theaters right now!

Moreover, this emphasis on new characters should speak volumes about the filmmakers’ intentions. Remember, this is the first major crossover in The Conjuring Universe. This should be exactly the kind of epic landmark event that’s the cornerstone of the MCU, the culmination of character arcs and setups laid out over all the movies released thus far.

This is exactly when the filmmakers could have and should have given us the payoff to seven movies’ worth of history. And they didn’t. Because they couldn’t. Because there was nothing to pay off.

This world is not immersive, that’s all there is to it. There’s no greater mythology to discover. There’s not a single memorable character or even a single memorable line in the entire superfranchise. There’s no endgame for us to get excited for, because if there was, this would’ve been it.

But no, The Conjuring Universe was always built on quick, cheap, disposable horror films. These are movies made to be enjoyed in the space of 100 minutes and then promptly forgotten. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a huge mythology out of quick and disposable stories, but it typically takes episodes churned out in massive volumes (as with television, comics, etc.). For movies, that’s just not going to cut it.

Granted, there are times when the filmmakers try to throw in some kind of emotional hook. There’s a bit early on in which Judy has to deal with the stress of growing up as the Warrens’ daughter, getting bullied and made fun of because her parents are paranormal kooks. There are themes about fitting in, finding your people, how there’s good and evil in the world, and none of it lands.

Yes, it’s nice that the filmmakers are at least giving some degree of thematic lip service, but it doesn’t work because none of it meshes with the horror content that the franchise is built on. Plus, I really don’t care what the movie has to say about good and evil when their respective forces are so nebulous, and I don’t care much about the characters’ emotional struggles when it still doesn’t give them any degree of depth.

So, because there’s nothing to pay off, the filmmakers instead spend their time setting up potential future franchises. They don’t even tease us with another possible end point, they just throw out everything in a million directions to see what shakes loose. Put simply, the filmmakers have no idea what they’re doing, and I don’t think they even really care so long as they have another excuse to fart out more movies until the wheels finally come off.

Annabelle Comes Home is more than scary enough to be a quick and forgettable good time. That would be enough for any other movie in the Conjuring superfranchise, but it’s sure as hell not good enough for a landmark crossover event. Indeed, as a crossover between two series that totally fails to build off of either series in any appreciable way, this entry betrays just how shallow and unsustainable the entire Conjuring Universe really is.

Because the whole superfranchise is built on small-budget movies, we’re never going to get a huge spectacular crossover event like Infinity War or even Civil War. Because the characters and mythology are all so shallow, and because this latest entry concludes without any sign of the next huge event to look forward to, we’re never going to get any kind of halfway decent payoff for all the time and money that the filmmakers are asking us to sink into this.

What we’re getting here are all the drawbacks of the MCU and none of the benefits. Thus the end result is that the filmmakers keep on lining their pockets until we all figure out how much time and money we’ve wasted. Why even keep this going?

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