We are now at the seventh film of the Conjuring Universe, and by this point, the films have established a formula as reliable and unyielding as a religious ceremony. They are not "stories" to be "told"; these movies areย enacted. So how in God's name is it that Annabelle Comes Home works so well - that it is, by my reckoning, easily the best film in this franchise outside of the two that actually have the word "Conjuring" in their title? The easy and incomplete answer would be that the film's success is entirely the result of embracing that formula, rather than pretending for even a moment that it's doing something new. But there's more to it than that - this isn't merely the most refined version of a Conjuring picture, it is an ebullient celebration of its genre, closer in mood and spirit to throwing a big party and inviting the viewer to join. It is one of the first movies in what feels like a decade - and yet, only the second movie starring a killer doll released in June 2019, after Child's Play - to understand that horror movies can work in a lot of different ways, and one of the best ways is when they're a huge amount of silly fun. Some horror is about deep existential panic and the fear of death; but some horror is about getting the giggles after you scream at a ratty-ass plastic skeleton popping out at you in a blacklit haunted house. The Evil Doll Movies of '19 capture that second kind of horror better than any movie I can think of in the ten years since Sam Raimi's sublimely kitschy Drag Me to Hell.

All due respect to Child's Play, which is miles and miles better than it has even the slighest reason to be, but I think Annabelle Comes Home wins this particular fight. It is, maybe, the best possible version of itself. The film is the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, who has now written four of the series' films to date, including 2014's Annabelle and 2017's Annabelle: Creation, the two films to which this is officially a sequel (he also wrote The Nun, a film that I admire far more than is normal, though not, I am afraid, because of its screenplay). He must have been paying awfully close attention, because Annabelle Comes Home is an impressively well-executed piece of filmmaking, with an immaculately swift pace, thick application of foggy atmosphere (this film is not as passionately in love with its fog machine as The Nun was, but it's close), and stronger performances from a mostly-untried cast than are in any way necessary for such junky claptrap as this scenario entails.

That scenario, incidentally, picks up with an opening scene that was also the opening scene of The Conjuring back in 2013, though we're seeing it from a different angle now. In 1968, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), a pair of smiling charlatans and con artists who have been rehabilitated into something like respectability by this franchise, which is easily the worst thing about it, retrieve a haunted doll from a group of freaked-out young women. On the drive home, Lorraine (a very sensitive psychic) figures out just how haunted when the doll's malevolent presence causes the Warren's car to stall in front of a fog-choked cemetery straight out of an EC Comics cover, and to draw the ghosts of the inhabitants to it like a beacon. Upon their arrival back home in Monroe, Connecticut, they have the local priest come over to bless the doll as hard as he's ever blessed anything, building a case from the sanctified windows of a church to be extra-sure that Annabelle - for that is the preposterously over-designed doll's name - cannot influence the outside world more than a little.

Skip ahead to 1971, shortly after The Conjuring, which has made the Warrens' peculiar hobbies a bit more visible to their neighbors than they'd like. They need to leave for the night, and are trusting their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) to the care of their usual babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). Though Mary Ellen doesn't necessarily believe in the power of the accumulated evil in the Warrens' basement museum, she respects the house rules, and so refuses to so much as look at the quadruply-locked door; she and Judy have a quiet night baking and watching cartoons. The end.

Haha no, Mary Ellen has a friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), who invites herself over despite Mary Ellen's extremely obvious discomfort, and all but chases Mary Ellen and Judy out with a broom in order to start pawing all over the Warrens' house. This of course involves swiping the keys to the forbidden room of evil, and after playing with damn near everything, she opens the Annabelle box. Cue a very long night as the three women are scared shitless by a proper army of demonic forces called into being by the newly-freed Annabelle; our heroes are intermittently joined (but, emphatically, never "helped") by the hapless Bob (Michael Cimino - not, as far as I can tell, the deceased director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, but I suppose we shouldn't jump to any conclusions), who has a reciprocal, awkwardly unvoiced crush on Mary Ellen.

One of those things I read once that stuck with me for no obvious reason was a description by the animators of the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Disney's Fantasia: we're watching one of the most purely evil beings in the history of cinema, but he's not, like doing anything. He's basically just goofing around, enjoying being purely evil. I get the same impression with Annabelle in Annabelle Comes Home. The ram-like demon inhabiting the doll - we see it a couple times, looking no less goofy than it has in past appearances - isn't trying to destroy the world or devour the souls of the living or anything. It's just spending the night out of that damn box having some fun, fucking with some teenagers. There is absolutely no reason for this to be as deliciously watchable as proves to be the case. Dauberman's screenplay, from a story by series boss James Wan, feels much more like a Greatest Hits compilation than an as-such "narrative": the characters get separated in different parts of the house and menaced by different ghostly creatures, each of which is presented by Dauberman and cinematographer Michael Burgess in at least somewhat of a different style. And at the end, they team back up to face down Annabelle herself. There's a real-world motivation for this - auditioning various supernatural beasts to be the next Nun or La Llorona - but in the moment, it's more about a pleasant feeling of excess, with the film pushing as much razzle-dazzle upon us as it can, always changing things up so we don't get bored. If it's like a carnival haunted house, it's one of the ones where every room has a different theme, and none of the themes actually tie together, but they go all-in on every one of them. Sometimes, this works out for Annabelle Comes Home just fine, as in the bit where one character is menaced by the Ferryman, which mostly consists of staging dead bodies with coins over their eyes, the coins flashing out in the gloom much brighter than they should. It's the best visual, and by far the best scare, that this franchise has produced since The Conjuring 2 in 2016. Sometimes, it doesn't work out at all: the fog-built hellhound Black Shuck is expressed through some deliriously shitty CGI, and I really hope we never have to see it again. But even here, at least Dauberman has the good sense of B-horror directors for decades: when your monster looks terrible, you need to come up with some fun, creative ways of not showing it, and he does some really great things with that.

The Black Shuck notwithstanding, Annabelle Comes Home looks wonderful, a great bit of autumnal mood-setting that moves right into gloomy, misty blacks and lots of shapes skittering around in the background out of focus. After The Curse of La Llorona did such a terrible job of taking place in the 1970s, it's fantastic to see Dauberman and his crew embrace the setting: production designer Jennifer Spence and set decorator Lisa Son absolutely go to town evoking a rich, specific sense of time and place in the quotidian settings like a high school, a suburban living room, or a grocery store that is, my hand to God, my favorite movie set of 2019 so far (the plethora of "ask about our pumpkins" signs is an especially fine touch). Costume designer Leah Butler has, maybe, a more straightforward job, but she still picks out clothes for the characters that immediately ground us not just in a moment, but in the kind of attitude that moment evokes; the loose, shaggy world of the '70s, maybe the ideal decade for a story about three 16-year-olds and a preteen to forced to fend for themselves without a morsel of adult supervision. At any rate, Annabelle Comes Home understands that something extremely specific feels more relatable and real than something general, even if it's specific to a very different world, and by putting so much effort into e.g. making sure we come face-to-face with some Milton Bradley game I've never, ever heard of, with the most unbelievably dated package design imaginable, it gets to something much more vivid and present than some random movie-created fake game could ever do.

The result is, visually and texturally, a fantastic successor to The Conjuring and its sequel (and this really does feel so much more like a Conjuring than an Annabelle). It also gets there thematically. This franchise has always been overwhelmingly Catholic, but for a lot of these spin-offs, that's mostly brought in for window dressing and and iconography (The Nun charms me, but not for its nuanced theology). Annabelle Comes Home gets in deeper, grappling more significantly with what religion does for people. Judy and Daniela both get somewhat complex character arcs, for a "jump out and say boo" horror picture: both are in turmoil trying to figure out what they believe about the afterlife and the potential for communication with the dead. Through them, the film is arguing - not very loudly or urgently - that the world is scary and arbitrary and unfair, but there are certain ways you can take comfort in the thought of things greater than ourselves, and the hope of peace and grace after death.

It is arguing this, to be sure, in between having doors loudly creak open, and having screaming corpses pop up where you don't want them to. It's not a serious movie; it just cares enough about craft to make sure that we feel the reality of the characters and their inner lives. Meanwhile, it spends most of its time cranking out one delectably creepy scare sequence after another, while making the most shameless use out of the audience's ability to get out in front of the material by making us anticipate every last little jump for what feel like tens of minutes (the set-up/twist/payoff way that game I mentioned is woven into the story is particularly superb). Dauberman isn't an artist, but he's a hell of a showman, and Annabelle Comes Home creaks and moans and goes bump in the dark like nobody's business. It's a movie that asks us to have fun being creeped out and to laugh along with it rather than scream, and while that might be about as anti-ambitious as genre cinema gets, it is a stunningly effective, acutely watchable version of that thing.

Reviews in this series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg, 2017)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)
Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman, 2019)