The Conjuring franchise has laid down a pretty full-proof template for churning out money-making horror hits: open with a tracking shot through the spooky ass house of some middle class family, dial up the scares as you gradually introduce some evil spirit, then bring in the ghosts detectives in the final act to buoy the momentum created in the beginning and bring the film to a pretty natural and satisfying climax. Added bonus: mention some mumbo-jumbo about God. This worked like gangbusters in The Conjuring 1 and 2, Annabelle: Creation and La Llorona. When they went away from this template in Annabelle and The Nun, they managed to create real turdburgers.
Annabelle Comes Home abandons this template, but it still manages to work as something different: it’s almost like a demo reel of scary set pieces, loosely tied together by the thinnest of story threads. You can clearly see the financial motivation behind the way this movie was structured: it leverages the franchise pedigree to maximize interest, including cameos by the big stars - but they only had to pay Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson for about 3 minutes of screen time. The rest of the budget went to a couple of unknown teen actors, and crafting a never-ending stream of scary set pieces. The result was a $25 million movie with great name recognition that earned nearly 10x its budget, while allowing long-time franchise writer and first-time director Gary Dauberman to try out some of his ideas in a pretty low-stakes way.
The result is a fun movie that delivers a lot of scares and thrills, but doesn’t offer any kind of elevated pleasure to the viewer, as the best entries in the franchise do. You don’t really care about these cardboard teen characters, and there’s no especially interesting or complex narrative arc going on other than: spooky thing happens, followed by another spooky thing, until eventually the movie is over. This works, to a certain extent, because of the skill with which each set piece is staged. They are, for the most part, inventive and scary and good at ratcheting up tension and delivering a memorable jump-scare. So as an agglomeration of technical exercises demonstrating the skill of the production team and the camera crew, the film works pretty well, delivering a moderately enjoyable experience. But I wouldn’t look for anything else in this film.
And you know what? That is perfectly fine, especially with a first-time director honing his skills. A well-made technical exercise that doesn’t aspire to be something greater is better than an ambitious film that turns out to be total crap.