Gary Dauberman’s Annabelle Comes Home is, as once lyricized in Halloween infamy, a “graveyard smash.” James Wan’s ongoing Conjurverse, which he still produces, at least doubles its villain roster throughout this one haunted house sequel. “The Ferryman,” “The Black Shuck,” and more snarling heavyweights make their presence known in this frightfully fun-filled war against Annabelle’s supernatural squad. Oh, how far we’ve come from 2014’s Annabelle, as John R. Leonetti’s once-weakest spinoff has become the Conjurverse’s steadiest and scariest subfranchise.

Madison Iseman plays Mary Ellen, babysitter for the famed Warren family. When Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) must skip town overnight, Mary Ellen is employed to watch Judy (Mckenna Grace). Early birthday celebrations are crashed by Mary Ellen’s mischievous friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), who arrives intent on exploring the Warrens’ archive of tainted artifacts. Lies are told, keys are found, and Daniela eventually does the stupidest thing imaginable – unlocks Annabelle’s holy spirit-enhanced casing. Daniela may have made a mistake, but all three girls will pay the price as they evade horror canon forces of evil all night. Annabelle does not go back in her box without a fight.

Warner Brothers will release Annabelle Comes Home this weekend, the latest in their Conjurverse saga. Here are three reasons not to miss Mr. Dauberman’s directorial debut.

1. The More Monsters, The Better

Annabelle’s assembled army, made of enemies from the Warrens’ past, introduces new Conjurverse entities at an alarming and enjoyable rate. Remember watching Cabin In The Woods, as characters selected their ultimate fate based on whichever basement item was engaged? Annabelle Comes Home mirrors a similar scene, except it’s only Daniela and she touches every freakin’ possessed artifact. “The Black Shuck” hellhound, a grabby “Feely Meely” Milton Bradley game, the very ritualistic “Ferryman” soul collector, an aggressive wedding dress – Annabelle invites plenty of new friends to the Warrens’ impromptu demon party, all of whom are celebrated additions.

Dauberman’s threequel is more creeptastically managed than outright scary, which is thanks to Annabelle’s rowdy teammates. Where The Nun or The Conjuring workshop specific tones, Annabelle Comes Home personalizes each tormentor’s unique “personality.”

Take howlin’ Mr. Black Shuck, who patrols outside the Warrens’ household. A thick fog reminiscent of England’s muggy moors impairs vision as the werewolf claws through automobile fabric via ferocious animal attacks. Then you immediately flip indoors to Daniela, pursued by a ghost of her past who’s all about establishing comfort then pivoting into mangled discomfort. Upstairs? Ms. Maniac Bride stalks her victims, knife drawn, as a slasher villain. Elsewhere? The “Ferryman” tosses his coins to lure victims into dark enough reaches for bodily harvesting. It’s a “Choose Your Fighter” Mortal Kombat mentality where each monster sells their spinoff potential. You know who wins in that scenario? You, the viewer.

2. Annabelle’s Homecoming Is Loads Of Fun

Note the keyword here: “fun.” Dauberman’s experienced the distinct advantage of working alongside James Wan on both the Conjurverse and Atomic Monster projects (Wan’s production company), as well as David F. Sandberg on Annabelle: Creation. He’s undoubtedly learned from the right talents, and those influences elevate his feature debut – BUT. Yes, the almighty “but.” Annabelle Comes Home at times feels a bit creaky in its delivery of scripted “babysitter in peril” motivations, especially when attempting constrictive scares. Dauberman’s at his best when maximizing the funhouse vibes of his rotten-hearted monsters, or recreating haunts of Conjurverse past. (Killer Bride’s first appearance when walking past windows is torn from Wan’s outlying Insidious franchise, for example).

Noting above, Annabelle Comes Home is the precise kind of boardwalk thrills-‘n-chills attraction worth punched tickets. In terms of summer blockbuster entertainment, Friday night horror lovers are going to revel in the contained chaos Dauberman achieves. The Warrens’ artifact room is this realm of limitless potential from possessed pianos to ghastly garbs to traumatized toys. When Annabelle is found placed around the house by Mary Ellen, or Judy, or Daniela, accompanying screams are a variety of eerie sounds tuned into atmospheric enhancement. I selected the above image for a reason. As Judy’s nightlight cycles through colors like a viewfinder, in the blackness between panes grows the shadow above. First a child, then taller figure, standing adult…then something much worse. Annabelle: Creation is the scarier Annabelle sequel (well, prequel), but Annabelle Comes Home might be the more purely entertaining of the two.

3. McKenna Grace Leads A Fearful Cast

Allow me to sing the praises of McKenna Grace, a.k.a. “Young Carol Danvers,” in Annabelle Comes Home. She’s no stranger to horror having starred in Amityville: The Awakening, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and The Haunting of Hill House, but the character of Judy Warren isn’t a scared little girl. Grace breaks the mold through fearlessness, as she may or may not harbor gifts handed down by her mother Lorraine. Judy wrestles with morbid discussions of afterlife studies, disturbing visions, and ultimately rises as the film’s heroic leader. Teeny Judy Warren sticking her hand into a handsy board game’s playing box or dashing into werewolf territory for Mary Ellen’s inhaler owns Annabelle Comes Home through a mature-beyond-her-years performance.

It’s not to shortchange Madison Iseman’s blondie babysitter or Katie Sarife’s grieving daughter who instigates the nightmare cinema because of a suffered tragedy. Michael Cimino, playing Mary Ellen’s crush, cowers in a chicken coop for comedic effect when chased by a summoned hellhound. Scripting forces these parts into genre contrivances, especially Sarife’s selfish dabbling in black magic, but that’s the name of Gary Dauberman’s game. When Annabelle Comes Home excels, monsters overtake the screen and vie for who’s the baddest of them all. When it doesn’t, characters stare down blackened hallways and shudder thinking about what encounters could come next. Final verdict? Many dates will have their arms vice-gripped to a soundtrack of nervous laughter and gleeful squeals. Annabelle Comes Home, while not the “scariest” offering, might just be the most fun horror fans will have this summer.

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