With Annabelle Comes Home, the horror genre's very own cinematic universe has finally paid off.
As virtually every film studio in Hollywood over the past few years has searched for its own Marvel, Warner Bros. found success by building a $1.5+ billion-grossing movie universe out of James Wan's The Conjuring.
Based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the 2013 film was ripe for franchise building. While staying focused on its individual storyline, The Conjuring cleverly teased a larger haunted world. In a key scene, Ed Warren shows a reporter around a room full of artifacts from his and his wife's various cases, noting that each is "either haunted, cursed, or has been used in some kind of ritualistic practice." He may as well have been quoting Nick Fury's famous line at the end of Iron Man that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe: "You've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet." Warren's room immediately sparked the interest of viewers, who wondered how the heck a wind-up monkey or a suit of samurai armor, both items seen there, could have diabolical origins. Still, since The Conjuring functioned as a complete story, it didn't seem a larger series was in the offing.
Nevertheless, it was, with the haunted doll Annabelle getting a spin-off in 2014 and The Conjuring itself getting a proper sequel in 2016. The connections between movies were still fairly light — Annabelle stood mostly on its own outside of bookend scenes — but things started to change with Annabelle: Creation. In this 2017 sequel, the demonic Nun from The Conjuring 2, who was set to lead her own spin-off the following year, made a cameo, both within the movie itself and in a Marvel-style post-credits scene.
That spin-off, 2018's The Nun, felt like another turning point. Its ending paid off a scene not from The Conjuring 2, the film The Nun spun off from, but from the original Conjuring. The same way you never know when a Spider-Man movie might resolve an Iron Man storyline, the Conjuring universe had now established you have to watch all of its films to ensure you understand everything. The series was starting to really commit to the cinematic universe idea — and seeing as the film became the series' highest-grossing entry ever, audiences seemed to be on board.
Earlier this year, the definition of what a Conjuring movie can be expanded once again with The Curse of La Llorona, the first entry to not directly spin off of any previous film while still clearly existing within the established world, featuring the same priest, and actual footage, from the first Annabelle. These spin-offs so far have all fit with a similar aesthetic while also being varied enough in time, place, and horror subgenre to keep things fresh.
All of this effort has brought us to this week's Annabelle Comes Home, the closest the series has come to an Avengers-style event. Taking place at the Warren household, the film establishes right away it isn't just Annabelle 3 but also The Conjuring 1.5, with Ed and Lorraine making their first appearance in new scenes outside of the flagship series.
Although they don't spend much time on screen, their presence is felt throughout. Annabelle Comes Home mainly revolves around the Warrens' daughter, Judy, for whom the first two Conjuring movies didn't have much time, never giving her a storyline of her own or much characterization at all. But she gets both here, and the film has us rooting for Judy as she's bullied and ostracized because of her parents' work, a previously unconsidered detail that complicates the Conjuring films. By the time Judy's arc reaches a moving resolution, we have a more meaningful understanding of, and investment in, a character who previously was little more than a plot point — which may come in handy in next year's The Conjuring 3.
Early scenes in Annabelle Comes Home further develop the world with details about how the public sees the Warrens, and a key story arc involves a new character named Daniela who is motivated by the Warrens following the death of her father. Her journey ultimately lends even more weight to the work the Warrens are doing by revealing that they're bringing hope to people like Daniela who aren't part of their cases.
This is still an Annabelle movie, so viewers get the demonic terror that characterized those first two films. At the same time, the movie also unleashes an army of monsters from the Warrens' case files and revels in that artifact room teased so memorably in the first two Conjuring installments. By giving us both the best of Annabelle and the best of The Conjuring, Annabelle Comes Home gets to have twice as much fun as it would have were it a traditional second sequel, including with callbacks to both series. Yes, at long last, that wind-up monkey and suit of samurai armor finally become scary.
For fans of the Conjuring franchise, it's glorious to see a film that doesn't just hint at a broader world but enriches the larger universe, developing a previously underutilized character, and merging material from multiple series into a smorgasbord of callbacks and different kinds of scares. In other words, after six years of inching toward this point, this is the first time the Conjuring franchise has fully reaped the benefits that come with being a cinematic universe.
That's not to say that Annabelle Comes Home is totally incomprehensible to newcomers. The way it builds upon what came before can be somewhat subtle, and the series has yet to go full Avengers with a crossover whose primary storyline factors in absolutely every plot thread so far. But if this film is another box office hit, a kind of Conjuring: Infinity War may not be far behind.
And if that can be as fun, and genuinely touching, as Annabelle Comes Home, then bring it on.