At first glance, they seem like a “normal” married couple in 1970s America. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) behind the wheel, trying not to admit that he’s lost as he navigates country backroads in the darkness of night. Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) in the passenger seat, a map folded out before her as she playfully pokes fun at her husband’s lack of direction, their easygoing back-and-forth banter warming the car.
But their third passenger indicates that Ed and Lorraine are anything but normal, and it certainly doesn’t share their love or warmth bolstered by years of facing the strange and the supernatural. A vessel for an inhuman spirit, the doll known as Annabelle stares straight ahead, a creepy smile painted on her face. Ed and Lorraine seem unperturbed by the third wheel, though—just another haunted relic from another day on the job in the life of married paranormal investigators.
Their nighttime drive comes to a halt when they approach an accident up ahead—a bad one. A police officer suggests they take a detour and shines a flashlight on the doll in the backseat, illuminating a shadowy frame that could at first be mistaken for a young girl. “Nice doll,” the police officer says, a smirk on his face. “That’s what you think,” Ed replies with his own hint of humor before taking the detour, driving them deeper into fog-enshrouded countryside.
As Ed says, the passenger in their vehicle is anything but “nice.” After her appearance in The Conjuring and taking the reins in two movies bearing her name, horror fans and even casual moviegoers are familiar with Annabelle and the bone-breaking, heart-stopping terror the demonic force who manipulates her is capable of. For a new generation of horror fans, Annabelle has become as familiar as Chucky was to people who grew up on Child’s Play films. In the third Annabelle movie, Annabelle Comes Home, Annabelle brings her eclectic scares to the room of haunted artifacts in the Warrens’ own house, and ahead of the film’s June 26th release from Warner Bros., Daily Dead was invited along with a few other journalists to visit New Line Cinema’s edit bay at Warner Bros. Studios in Hollywood to watch several in-progress scenes from the movie with writer/director Gary Dauberman and editor Kirk Morri.
Sitting on couches with index cards of story notes and plot scene descriptions taped to the wall behind us, our first taste of the movie comes from the Warrens’ nighttime detour mentioned above, and it immediately sets the foreboding mood of The Conjuring cinematic universe. Increasingly lost, Ed pulls the car over and tries to get his bearings, giving Lorraine some alone time with Annabelle… and the inhuman spirit that possesses her. When the fog bleeds away just enough to make Lorraine realize they’re near a graveyard, she checks the rearview mirror and sees that even though Ed has left the car, the vehicle still holds three passengers… and unfortunately for her, in this case, objects in the mirror are not only closer than they appear, but more malevolent as well.
Back in the New Line office, the clip ends and we pull ourselves out of the film’s immersive, addicting opening minutes to chat with Dauberman. One of the chief architects of the New House of Horror That James Wan Built, Dauberman has written five movies in The Conjuring cinematic universe, in addition to co-scribing 2017’s IT and writing IT Chapter Two for New Line (based on Stephen King's book of the same name). Annabelle Comes Home marks Dauberman's first time helming a film, though, and he’s thrilled to use his directorial debut to explore the relatable family dynamic of the Warren family, which also includes their 10-year-old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), who he consulted in real life as well.
“I thought a lot about this as a parent myself,” Dauberman says. “I wanted the banter in the car to be a little bit of just, they don't talk about death all the time or ghosts. They're a married couple, I'm sure they have their little inside jokes and all that stuff. I kind of wanted to get a little bit of that there. And then, they're also parents to Judy, and being able to actually talk to the real Judy Warren was this exceptional experience, and her husband Tony, and just what it was like growing up with having parents that did what they do. When we're kids, our parents have their jobs and all that stuff. And her parents had this really strange and special kind of job. So, I want[ed] to talk to her about that and what it was like to actually even live in the house with these artifacts that they would bring home from the cases and all that stuff, it was something that I thought a lot about when I was approaching this from a story standpoint as a writer.”
“When I was talking to her [Judy], I didn't want to ask her about the paranormal investigations or whatever because all that is in the books, and I've read the books, and I've read the interviews. So I knew that stuff was out there. The stuff I really wanted to get behind the curtain on was just what they were like as parents and how they interacted together as a couple and as people in a relationship. Because, when we see them in the movies, it's such a great love story, right? They support one another. They kind of have this model of the perfect marriage. So, I wanted to pull at those strands. It was really heartwarming to find out that the way she saw it, they had this wonderful marriage and supported one another. I wrote that scene about them getting lost and then having worthless direction with the map and all that stuff. She did not know that was in the movie, but one thing she mentioned was, 'Oh, my dad had a terrible sense of direction.' So I was like, 'Oh, well, okay. That's cool. That works out.'
“And she [said] that they loved eating in diners. This little stuff that you wouldn't necessarily find in those books, in those cases were the kinds of things that I just felt like make it feel more real to me. Because working on these movies, you forget sometimes that they're real people and they really did this. So, I just liked the things that made them well-rounded—they have their eccentricities and their habits and their likes and dislikes and all that stuff.”
With their happy home serving as a safe haven from their dangerous investigations on the road, some might wonder why the Warrens would choose to bring Annabelle and other haunted items into their abode, but Dauberman explains why that’s actually the safest decision they could make.
“Well, their idea is that if you destroy these objects, it would release that negative energy or whatever is attached to it, out into the world. So, they don't want to do that. Which is why they bring them [home] and then put them in this artifact room. So, we stated that pretty explicitly in the movie.”
Although the family dynamic of the Warrens is explored in Annabelle Comes Home, we’ll also see the family from the points of view of people outside of their home, including teenager Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), who is tasked with babysitting Judy for one night while her parents are away on a trip… right after sealing Annabelle behind priest-blessed glass in their artifacts room. With the Warrens having an Addams Family-esque reputation among the local community, Mary Ellen’s latest babysitting gig piques the interest of her close friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), and another clip we watch in the edit bay highlights their relationship… and Daniela’s rebellious and mischievous side that factors into all hell breaking loose at the Warrens’ house later in the film.
Walking through a supermarket that bleeds small-town 1970s Americana, Mary Ellen shops while Daniela playfully pries at her about babysitting for the Warrens and insists on coming over. Mary Ellen at first refuses, but when Daniela sees Mary Ellen’s crush, Bob (Michael Cimino), working the register, she uses him as leverage to get Mary Ellen to agree to let her come over to the Warrens’ house that night, threatening to tell Bob that she likes him if she doesn’t agree.
Mary Ellen’s shyness and Daniela’s brazen, devil-may-care attitude in this scene are reminiscent of the relationship between Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) in John Carpenter’s Halloween, and after the clip, Dauberman confirms that ’70s-era horror films influenced his approach to Annabelle Comes Home, not just in their shared time period, but in their playfulness and span of events happening in one night.
“I wanted a little sense of playfulness because it is teenagers [in the] early ’70s. It's teenage girls in a house. I wanted to have that sort of vibe to it, the ’70s-style horror movie. There's a couple more moments of levity in this movie just because I like that. I like a little bit of a laugh, because if you get them laughing and then you get them scared, it's a sharper contrast. I hope there's a sense of playfulness to this one. Not that the others don't have that, but it's just girls alone in a house [in the] early ’70s. I just like that it takes place over the course of just one night. We haven't done that before, for the most part. It's usually a couple of days or a week or whatever. I just wanted to do something from the course of one night, and things get crazy… It feels very slasher-y and all that stuff.”
The latest addition to The Conjuring universe movie continues to come alive before our eyes in the New Line office with a clip that expands on the character of Mary Ellen, this time focusing on her relationship with Judy. While the 10-year-old Judy is proud of what her parents do for a living, the kids at her school don’t share her open mind, and on her way through the school hallway, she encounters something that can be scarier to a 10-year-old than any demonic doll or possessed nun: bullies.
Although she stands her ground in the hallway, Judy is clearly bothered by how other children treat her because her parents are different than your average mother and father in ’70s America. Thankfully, it’s not long before Mary Ellen comes to her rescue, dropping by to pick up Judy and leaving the bullies with some choice words, showing that when it comes to defending the children she babysits, she's anything but shy, although she'll have her work cut out for her when Annabelle sets her sights on Judy later that night...
Following the school hallway clip, Dauberman expands upon Judy’s perception of her parents and how other people view her family.
“She's becoming more and more curious at the start of the movie. It's something she just accepted, because it was sort of this normal way of life. And I think now that she's starting to realize certain things about her parents and stuff, there's a little bit more talk around her parents and about what they do in the outside world. It's starting to really pique her interest and make her take notice, where as she saw it as sort of this normal thing, she's realizing that other people don't really see it as such. And thus, as a kid, that's got to be tough. You want to be anything but different. And her parents are different and consequently it makes her different, too, by association. So she's struggling with that.”
Before leaving the Warner Bros. lot, we are shown one more scene, and it’s safe to say that they saved the scariest for last. In order for Annabelle to make Mary Ellen’s babysitting gig one to remember (if she’s lucky enough to survive), someone has to go into the locked haunted artifacts room and disturb the peace, and that’s exactly what the ever-curious Daniela does in our final preview scene.
After getting the key that unlocks the multiple locks to the artifacts room, Daniela wanders through the room alone, gazing in wonder at all of the supposedly haunted items that fill the space. It doesn’t take long to see that there’s nothing “supposed” when it comes to whether or not the items in the Warrens' collection are haunted, as a horned samurai helmet swivels to follow Daniela’s movement through the room. The ancient warrior helmet is only one of many residents that Annabelle shares space with, each one with their own haunted story to tell… and their own hell to unleash on Daniela, Mary Ellen, and Judy.
Unaware of the danger she’s unleashing onto herself and the other people in the house, Daniela’s presence in the artifacts room seemingly tampers with the invisible blessings and barriers carefully applied by the Warrens and Father Gordon (Steve Coulter). Daniela quickly learns that demonic forces are all too real and none too forgiving, as she’s haunted by the appearance of her deceased father in a shadowy corner of the room… a reveal that, although it may sound cliché, made me jump in my seat a little and confirmed that in addition to writing memorable scares for the screen, Dauberman is just as effective at bringing them to life as a director. And with a whole roomful of haunted items and demonic entities to play with, Dauberman had plenty of creative freedom in making Annabelle a master of macabre ceremonies in his directorial debut.
“That's kind of how I looked at her [Annabelle], as sort of the maestro of the madness or the mayhem. As you put it, 'master of ceremonies' is a great way to put it, and how she sort of charges off the other artifacts that are in the room. When you bring something like Annabelle, who is this strong, demonic force and put her in the presence of all these other sort of forces, what's that like? What's that interaction like?”
“When you go and you look at the museum that they [the Warrens] actually have and their cases and all that stuff, it really is just sort of this embarrassment of riches in terms of the different things they explored. As a horror fan, it's just all these different sub-genres of horror in each case. Like, ‘Oh, psychological, we [can] do a creature for you.' It was a lot of fun to choose which sort of objects we decided to explore, but also very challenging because you can't do them all. I'm sure we'll try. But in this movie, we couldn't do them all.”
Although Dauberman and his creative team (including production designer Jennifer Spence and cinematographer Michael Burgess) had many haunted entities to bring to life in Annabelle Comes Home, one that won’t be front and center is the Warrens’ frequent nemesis Valak, due to the timeline of the third Annabelle film. When asked about a potential cameo from Valak, Dauberman had this to say:
“No, and I'll say that because this movie takes place in 1973, it takes place before The Conjuring 2, so I didn't want to... there's a story point in Conjuring 2 where Judy's like, 'What's that?' So if I put her in there, it was a whole logic thing.
Even though Annabelle Comes Home marks Dauberman’s directorial debut, he had plenty of experienced advice available behind the camera, with James Wan, the creator of The Conjuring cinematic universe, always willing to help despite an increasingly busy schedule of his own.
“He's just been so accessible. He's just present and asking questions: ‘What are you guys doing? I'm going to come down and look at stuff, put it on pics. Hey, have you thought of this? Have you thought of that?’ I'll wake up and see that at four in the morning he was texting an idea, which is one of my favorite things. Or getting an email from him about, ‘Hey, did you think of this?’ It's amazing to have that happen… He's the guiding North Star of this universe. He's not someone who can drift away or drift off. He's got to be involved, and thank God.”
Although Annabelle Comes Home will be the third film bearing the haunted doll’s name, Dauberman says that The Conjuring spinoff series could continue beyond a trilogy.
“I do have an idea for [Annabelle] 4, but that's not to say it's a good idea, I just have an idea, because all these things are so rich in history and mythology and then also, the characters, too—Judy, they all have this great backstory. I think you can really unfold their stories in a myriad of different ways.”
In the meantime, there is a myriad of nightmares awaiting viewers when Annabelle Comes Home is released in theaters on June 26th, when horror hits close to home for the Warrens and viewers alike.