It’s been a little under six years since James Wan gave us The Conjuring and brought the case files of Lorraine and Ed Warren to the big screen. Since then the “Conjuringverse” has become one of the biggest and most profitable franchises going in any genre with sequels and spin-offs delivering hit after hit. But for every Nun or Crooked Man, the essence of this series comes down to two crucial elements: the Warrens themselves, as played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, and Annabelle, the terrifying devil doll. The franchise may have taken them in different directions but now they’re finally back together under the same roof.
“It’s something we talked about after Annabelle: Creation,” remembers Gary Dauberman. “We sort of take these movies as they come so it wasn’t like when we were doing the first one we were like ‘In the third one she’s gonna come home and we’ll do it there!’ But when James keyed in on that idea it was the lightbulb moment of ‘of course!’ We were off to the races.”
Dauberman has been one of the key architects of the Conjuring franchise since writing Annabelle in 2014, going on to script Annabelle: Creation and The Nun, not to mention producing the latter and The Curse Of La Llorona. Now, he’s making his directorial debut with Annabelle Comes Home, which brings the demon-driven doll back to the Warrens’ secure artefacts room where it can do no more damage. Until, that is, their daughter Judy’s babysitter Daniela (Katie Sarife) goes poking around where she shouldn’t and accidentally unleashes a night of nightmares. With Ed and Lorraine away, can Judy (Mckenna Grace), Daniela and Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) survive Annabelle’s onslaught?
The films in the Conjuring universe have roamed the globe, from New York to London to Romania, but this is the first time we’ll really get to spend some quality time in the Warrens’ home (beyond Ed’s spooky paintings, of course) and witness the full extent of their collection of haunted artefacts. After all, it’s not just Annabelle who’s kept behind a locked door, and James Wan definitely caught our attention when he described the film as “…basically Night At The Museum, with Annabelle!”
“Yeah, it is a little like Night At The Museum: the horror version!” laughs Dauberman when we remind him of Wan’s catchy synopsis. “We always try to start with the Warrens and they have such a wealth of information and cases that they’ve investigated over the years that you look for anything that piques your interest. The challenge was that there are so many artefacts in that room and there are so many Warren case files that it was: what are the ones that we really want to dig into? What are the artefacts that we really thought could tell the best story? You can’t do so much that you don’t know what to be scared of, so it was really an editing process of going ‘This one, not that one.’ I think we have a good batch of artefacts that are the centrepieces for this movie.”
As much fun as the other evil objects are, this is Annabelle’s movie. The doll was a minor player in The Conjuring but it was immediately obvious that this was a breakout character, and Dauberman tells us that there’s a reason why he keeps coming back to it. “The challenge of Annabelle has always been interesting to me,” he explains. “How can we be creative in making her terrifying when she can’t get up and walk over to you? I’ve always liked that challenge and I think that makes her far more scary too. She’s kind of the General, I always call her the maestro of the madness controlling these things, she’s just sitting back and letting everything happen. And she has a great design to her where you can just cut to Annabelle and do a slow little creep and it gets people on the edge of their seat. She doesn’t need to get up in order to be scary. Just her presence in the room and whatever it is in the room that she might affect because she’s in there is terrifying.”
While the response to 2014’s Annabelle was not great despite its box office success, there was a much warmer reaction to the David F Sandberg-directed origin story Annabelle: Creation and the pressure was on Dauberman to find a new and frightening story for the doll’s third solo outing. “We expanded on the mythology of the doll in Creation and I was like ‘What can we do to make this feel fresh?’” he tells us. “There were some things tonally I wanted to do and make it feel a little bit more different from the other ones. It takes place over the course of one night, we haven’t seen that in the universe and that gives it an old school throwback, almost slasher vibe in a way, it has a nice build up.
“It’s set in the suburbs, Monroe, Connecticut. It wasn’t in Romania, it wasn’t out in the middle of nowhere like Creation. Annabelle felt more like a city vibe, this felt more suburban which is why I drew on the suburban slashers and Poltergeist and things like that,” Dauberman continues. “I like the idea that all these horrors are happening in this house while next door there are neighbours on either side not knowing that all this stuff is going on. I never felt like I would be beholden to the other movies but I definitely felt free to do what I wanted from a visual standpoint.”
And what says old school suburban horror throwback more than a young girl and her babysitters facing off against an unstoppable evil force? One of the elements that made Creation such an improvement on its predecessor was the fact that the story was told from the perspective of the children, and Dauberman tells us that he was keen to replicate that dynamic here.
“I don’t want this coming out like it’s about to come about but I like kids in jeopardy in horror films!” he laughs. “When it’s dealing with the supernatural, I just feel more scared for them. And kids are more open to thinking it’s supernatural, so there’s more of a sense of playfulness. Thankfully I had an amazing cast in Mckenna and Madison and Katie and Michael, who brought that sense of playfulness to the set every day and I think that translates really well on screen. I like that sense of youthful energy and I think the movie really has that.”
Horror fans will remember Mckenna Grace from her excellent performance as young Theo Crain in Mike Flanagan’s Haunting Of Hill House series, and her formidable resume also includes playing the young Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel, the young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya and the young Sabrina Spellman in Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. There aren’t many child actors out there with such an intimidating CV and Dauberman tells us that he was thrilled to work with her.
“I don’t know if she learned anything from me but I learned a lot from her,” he enthuses. “She is a really unique and special person, she’s immensely talented. When I first met her and we were talking about this movie, she came in with this journal that she’d made as Judy Warren and it was so insightful and so thoughtful and really helped me inform the character as I was further developing it in the process. She brings that kind of professionalism with it and then I take a sip of my coffee and she’s doused it with Tabasco sauce, so she’s still a kid but she also has a really mature and really thoughtful creative process that I just loved and I think she was just the perfect girl to play Judy Warren.”
Then, of course, there’s Farmiga and Wilson. While the duo will return to the main Conjuring story in next year’s second sequel, this is the first time they’ve made a significant appearance in a spin-off and getting to direct them was clearly a joy for the first-time filmmaker. “It’s like someone gave you the keys to the Ferrari,” he grins. “They know these characters inside and out; I think they’re the heart and soul of the franchise and to have them come on board really just elevated the movie for everyone involved. I learned so much working with them and they were so patient and supportive knowing that this was my first time in the director’s chair and just really also had a very collaborative spirit. Being able to work with people like that, who understand the creative process, who are patient and supportive, who are as talented as they are…it was just a blessing, I felt so fortunate.”
As we mentioned, the Warrens are every bit as important to the Conjuring universe as the evil forces they face and it’s hard to think of horror movie protagonists who have made such an impact in recent years. We all showed up to see the demonic nun and Annabelle’s antics make waves at the box-office, but Lorraine and Ed and their relationship are absolutely at the heart of this franchise.
“Well, first of all I think it’s Patrick and Vera’s portrayal of them,” explains Dauberman. “They portray them as grounded, authentic characters. I think it lends an authenticity to what they’re experiencing and makes everything feel all the more scary because it feels so real because they feel so real. I love the idea that they’re in this loving marriage, they support one another as husband and wife. How many horror movies start out with ‘Oh, mom’s getting divorced we’ve got to move to a new house,’ it’s always thematically the family’s fractured which invites in the demonic. They’re just this more traditional loving couple that unfortunately we don’t see too often nowadays and I love that aspect of them.
“They ground the universe and the series in a way that makes things feel scarier. As opposed to everything being terrible, they’re this great union and they’re the good that’s vanquishing evil. The evil is out there, the good is inside them. And I just really like that, it feels very classic to me, it feels very comforting.”
When we speak to Dauberman The Curse Of La Llorona has just enjoyed a massive opening weekend. Meanwhile, Akela Cooper has been set to write the sequel to The Nun and The Crooked Man is still in development (reportedly the success of The Nun has moved it a little further down the production schedule). There’s no denying that The Conjuring movies have been at the centre of horror’s current boom period and the franchise’s importance is not lost on Dauberman.
“I mean, it’s incredible,” he tells us. “I have enough anxiety so I try not to think about it too much, I think I would feel more pressure than I already do! I think all of us just try and keep our heads down and just do the work. We listen to what the fans want and how they respond to different movies, but I also think we try to remain true to ourselves. But I think in some ways I won’t realise how exceptional it is until years from now when I’m looking back on it. I don’t go online; I try to stay in my bubble and just do the work. People just are supportive of the genre and I’ve always dug that. When I used to go to the Blockbuster or Suncoast Video when I was a kid, there were always people in the horror aisle, myself included, and they didn’t care who was in it, it was just: does this look cool or not? With other genres you kind of go ‘Well, this person’s in it so it must be good.’ In horror it’s ‘This sounds really cool so I’m going to check it out,’ and I just love that enthusiasm because you don’t get that a lot nowadays.”
Annabelle Comes Home is in cinemas now. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.