As of July 2019, we are six years and seven feature films into the world of the Conjuring Universe, Hollywood’s third-most well-established shared universe. As is the case with almost any relationship, that amount of time has given us real opportunity to know this cinematic partner, and we now have an informed sense of what does and does not work for a Conjuring movie.
According to my evaluation, the relative merits of Conjuring Universe films go something like this (in descending order):
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The Conjuring (2012)
Annabelle: Creation (2017)
Annabelle Comes Home (2019; more on this in a bit)
The Curse of La Llorona (2019)
The Nun (2018; and, by the way, this one is very, very much last in terms of quality)
The reader can already see that when these films are examined for quality by chronological order, the resulting graph is a sine wave. As a result, that chronological experience of the films takes the viewer on a proverbial roller coaster ride of rapid ascents and descents (not to belabor a metaphor, but watching The Nun is very much like taking the plunge on Kingda Ka at Six Flags New Jersey in the worst possible sense), raising the question of whether or not to continue on with the ride.
What we have learned so far is that the closer a Conjuring film stays to the classic haunted house setup, the higher the quality of the resulting film. The worst film in the series, The Nun, is also the one that strayed the furthest from the haunted house formula. Yes, it is a haunted convent, but this distinction matters. In similar fashion, the next worst film in the franchise, Annabelle, takes place in a haunted metropolitan apartment building. As previously mentioned, the distinction matters – haunted house, better movie, haunted something else, worse movie.
Thinking again of that chronological experience of Conjuring Universe films, the reader will note that the two most recent releases before Annabelle Comes Home – 2018’s The Nun and 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona – scored on the lower end of the quality scale. The result is that viewers who had stayed with the Conjuring Universe were left wondering whether or not the franchise was winding down to an end. Happily, however, Annabelle Comes Home returns to the haunted house motif and, in doing so, indicates there is considerable life left in the franchise.
Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life duo who spent their years hunting down anything that went bump in the night, remain the most compelling component of the Conjuring Universe. Their experiences, documented in their case files, and their collection of supernatural paraphanalia, housed in an occult museum within their home, is the lasting curiosity of the Warrens’ work following Lorraine’s death in April. It is this museum, at the center of the Warrens’ home, that turns Annabelle Comes Home into a film that both re-grounds and re-launches the Conjuring Universe.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga portray the Warrens on the big screen, but their presence has been reserved almost exclusively for the main line of the Conjuring films (i.e. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2). These main line films have fed the spin-off Conjuring films by introducing the scary characters (i.e. Annabelle, The Nun) who would go on to feature in the spin-offs, but the Warrens did not follow. This pattern changes with Annabelle Comes Home, and the presence of Wilson and Farmiga’s characters (opening the film then swiftly departing) skillfully adds gravity to the movie while also allowing more minor characters (and those who play them) to shine.
This is particularly true for the character of Judy Warren, Ed and Lorraine’s oldest daughter, who Annabelle Comes Home sets at its narrative center. Played by Mckenna Grace, an actress who at 13 already boasts an impressive horror movie resume, Judy is a girl facing a stark reality, namely that she has inherited her mother’s sensitivity to the supernatural world. Judy is quite literally haunted by the Warren legacy, within and without. In the days leading up to her birthday, a local newspaper publishes a critical piece on the Warrens and then, one by one, Judy’s school friends drop off her party guest list. More chillingly, Judy daily sees the ghost of a departed priest roaming the halls of her school.
The Conjuring Universe boasts a narrative strength that may surprise those who view the horror genre with a skeptical eye – the films in this world never flinch from portraying characters that are genuinely wholesome, forthright, and good-hearted. Annabelle Comes Home picks this tradition up first in the character of Mary Ellen, Judy’s compassionate and faithful babysitter. Mary Ellen is an honorable young woman who takes her care of Judy, both as a caregiver and an emotional support, very seriously. Mary Ellen is joined in the film by a friend, Daniela, who is hinted to be a bit more profligate (although only to the degree of violating curfew). It is Daniela who drives the plot of the movie, breaking into the Warrens’ occult museum and arousing the dangerous spirits within. However, playing with the assumptions of veteran horror fans, Daniela is revealed to be not the promiscuous vixen so common in the genre but rather a young woman attempting to wrestle with the loss of her father and her own sense of guilt for her involvement in his death. Joining this young-adult ensemble is Bob Palmeri, a stock boy at the local grocery story with the cleanest of cuts in both appearance and character. Bob provides a bit of comic relief on the periphery during the events of the film, but never in a way that despises his earnestness. These young characters are able inheritors of the tradition established by Wilson and Farmiga’s Ed and Lorraine – upright people pressed into difficult circumstances who refuse cowardice and compromise as a means of escape, finally triumphing over evil with their integrity intact.
As the supernatural shenanigans play out over the course of Annabelle Comes Home, the girls encounter a hoard of bad guys ripe for employment in future Conjuring Universe films. We meet the dreaded Boatman, a specter who ferries the departed to the afterlife and must be appeased with an offering of coins. Annabelle Comes Home also leans into the largely untapped vein of wardrobe horror, giving us not only a haunted wedding dress but also an equally haunted set of samurai armor. While these ghouls are showing themselves within the confines of the Warren House, our new friend Bob is left to defend himself outside against a werewolf-like Hell Hound. This grab-bag approach suggests, at the very least, two and perhaps four future Conjuring spin-off films. However, each creature is used to effect within Annabelle Comes Home, enhancing the movie rather than feeling like a kind of franchise product-placement advertisement of things to come.
In the final estimation, Annabelle Comes Home does not attempt to rewrite the rules of a good horror movie. It does not even attempt to rewrite the rules of a good Conjuring movie. Instead, the film shows its merits by demonstrating the continuing vitality of both jump scares and horror movies where unabashed good stares evil in the face without flinching. There is a future for this franchise indeed, one that likely holds a haunted wedding dress and a Hell Hound, but also the chance for compelling new opportunities to experience the thrill of classic horror movie scares within stories full of characters we care about. In a very real way, Annabelle Comes Home brings the Conjuring Universe home – home to a haunted house, yes, but home also in the way that multiple generations of the kind of people we want to root for are now taking up the task of turning back the supernatural forces of darkness. The Conjuring ride continues and Annabelle Comes Homes strongly suggests that is a good thing for the moviegoing audience.
 I should note that this author generally enjoyed The Curse of La Llorona, even as the film ultimately settles toward the bottom of the franchise’s rankings for significant reasons. I should also note that La Llorona, wisely, chose to return to the haunted house format after the misguided decision to take The Nun to an abbey.
 Although not at the home’s heart, as committed fans of the franchise will know.