The horror genre has been home to several franchises that long overstayed their welcome—remember when Jason Voorhees went to space? The Leprechaun did as well!—but it doesn’t have a legacy defined by the kind of interconnected universe-building made popular by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But ever since James Wan’s 2013 The Conjuring, Warner Bros. has been steadily building out its Conjuring Cinematic Universe (a term we’ve used at The Ringer, and are willing to license to the studio for a small commission!) with a commendable amount of commercial success. With a Conjuring sequel, two spinoffs about a possessed doll (Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation), another spinoff about a demonic nun (The Nun), and yet another spinoff based on Mexican folklore (The Curse of La Llorona), the CCU has churned out six movies and earned over $1 billion at the box office over the past six years. That’s a legit haul, made all the more impressive by the smaller budgets these horror flicks have in contrast to most CGI-aided blockbusters. The CCU movies all share some crucial elements: They’re all period pieces chock-full of jump scares, creaking doors, demonic spirits, crises of faith, and plenty of sinister entities to spin out for additional installments. (To wit: A spinoff based on the Crooked Man, a memorably creepy ghoul from The Conjuring 2, is also in the works.)
The CCU is weaving so many threads, and so many spinoffs relative to the main films, that it’s reasonable to wonder how soon these movies will begin yielding diminishing returns. While that hasn’t happened yet—and the risk is minimal given the modest cost to finance these films—not all the spinoffs have earned the same plaudits as the frontline Conjuring entries. The Nun and La Llorona, in particular, suffered abysmal reviews—though, with a big box office haul, The Nun still has a green-lit sequel on the way.
On paper, then, the fact that a third Annabelle movie arrives this week, a year before The Conjuring 3, seems like a fatal miscalculation from a studio that’s gone a little too spinoff-happy. That said, Annabelle Comes Home isn’t just another prequel about a sinister doll who terrorizes families; it’s more connected to the main Conjuring movies than any of the other CCU offshoots. This movie is to the CCU what Captain America: Civil War was to the MCU, bringing most of the gang together against a common enemy while introducing new potential franchise mainstays.
For the first time since The Conjuring 2, we return to the orbit of the franchise’s main protagonists, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). (Consider them the Cap and Iron Man of the CCU, and—OK, I’ll stop with the comparisons there.) In the chilling prologue of Annabelle Comes Home, the couple has just come into possession of the freaky-looking doll and, on their way home, see firsthand what it’s capable of as it beckons a bunch of spirits from a nearby cemetery. Annabelle is a conduit for other supernatural forces—left unchecked, the doll basically sets off a flare for demons like, “Come haunt these fools!”
The Warrens are able to lock Annabelle away under considerable protective measures in their haunted artifact room—which we’re informed gets blessed by a priest every week and, of course, remains under lock and key. But after that, the Warrens quickly exit the narrative for a job out of town, and the focus turns to their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace), her babysitter Mary (Madison Iseman), and Mary’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), who’s curious about the Warrens’ reputation as exorcists. Unsurprisingly, Daniela’s interest is a disaster waiting to happen; it’s not much of a spoiler to say that, yes, Annabelle breaks free and chaos ensues.
For a (most ambitious?) crossover event that combines CCU franchise mainstays and the infamous doll, though, Annabelle Comes Home remains admirably small-scale, with sensibilities more in line with an Amblin Entertainment flick from the ’80s than a grandiose horror spectacle. The action rarely leaves the Warrens’ home, and the film is happy to rely on jump scares and horrific ghouls through the guise of a babysitting gig gone wrong. (More than a few critics have likened the movie to Adventures in Babysitting with a horror sheen.) Annabelle the doll is a perfect vehicle for this approach: Though she’s the namesake of three spinoff movies, her actual screen time is noticeably thin, as Annabelle Comes Home is more about the other insidious things that Annabelle’s presence can summon. The doll doesn’t even move on the screen, so much as it continually pops up in unexpected places.
That means the Warrens’ artifact room, and the true horrors of the film, are unleashed in all their horrific glory. This setup allows the movie to unveil a mix of apparitions originally seen in the first two Conjuring movies—including the haunted samurai armor that emanates the screams of former victims—as well as new totems, like a cursed wedding dress that turns anybody who wears it into a violent psychopath. The most effective newcomer is the Ferryman, who shepherds spirits to another realm, collecting the souls of those who leave coins around their eyes. The Ferryman has glowing coin eyes, gives me perpetual nightmares, and, if the CCU’s history is any indication, will probably be getting his own spinoff in a few years’ time.
While Annabelle Comes Home confirms the CCU can still mine effective scares out of its well-worn formula and creepy callbacks, the decision to give the Warrens’ daughter ample time in the spotlight is perhaps a peek into the franchise’s long-term future. The third Conjuring movie will once again center its narrative on Ed and Lorraine Warren—this time reportedly moving the action to the ’80s—but Judy, who possesses the same clairvoyant abilities as her mother, could be a potential through line for future installments that take place closer to the present day. Now the CCU doesn’t necessarily have to end when they run out of things for the Warrens to do, or when Wilson and Farmiga finally call it quits.
Whether future CCU films feature demonic presences like the Ferryman—or yet another story line centered on Annabelle, a messy doll who clearly lives for drama—Annabelle Comes Home is the best indication yet that the minds behind the franchise understand how to extend both its life span and commercial appeal. The jump scares are a familiar tactic, sure, but they’re still being deployed in fun and creative ways. And with an entire room of haunted items still waiting to be franchised, the universe-expanding prospects of the CCU remain terrifyingly boundless.