You wait all year for a demonic doll film and then two come along at once. On one side there's the release of Child's Play, a reboot of the 1988 take of an evil doll - in the original, the soul of a serial killer is transferred into the toy via voodoo; this time, the microchips go haywire.
On the other side, there's debut director Gary Dauberman's Annabelle Comes Home, the seventh film in the cross-pollinating horror franchise that began with James Wan's 2013 chiller The Conjuring. Mixing real characters with mythological demonic tales, the series has already grossed more than US$1.5 billion. But what keeps audiences coming back for more?
It's not easy making a lasting horror series, as Universal found out when they intended to revive the studio's classic monster movies. They got as far as 2017's atrocious big-budget effort The Mummy, with Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, but shelved other intended remakes for this so-called 'Dark Universe' - Dr. Jekyll, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein's Monster, Bride of Frankenstein - when audience interest waned.
Yet with The Conjuring and its spin-offs, it's been a very different story.
"We went into it, with it feeling very organic," says Dauberman. "No-one went in to The Conjuring and went 'OK, we're going to blow this up into a universe.' It just kind of happened organically. I hope that reads in the movies. It lends itself to being a little bit more authentic rather than it being some master plan where suddenly all these things are going to converge and meet up."
With Wan overseeing all the films, either as producer or with a story credit, it helps that he's already enjoyed considerable success with both the long-running Saw and Insidious franchises. But with films like 2018's Dauberman-scripted The Nun, picking up from threads told in The Conjuring 2, this shared universe approach keeps the formula fresh, producing what amounts to a series of fireside spook stories - the scariest of which involves Annabelle.
First glimpsed in The Conjuring, Annabelle is a porcelain doll kept behind glass in the artefacts room in the house of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life husband-and-wife paranormal investigators who feature heavily in the series. While the Warrens were famed for the case that spawned classic movie The Amityville Horror, Annabelle is another big part of their history.
As Wan recalls, "I thought, 'There's no way I can do a story about the Warrens without having Annabelle in there some place'."
While the Warrens' own version of Annabelle was a Raggedy Ann doll kept in their Occult Museum in Connecticut, the Annabelle in the films has taken on a life on her own. A conduit for evil spirits, this creepy toy has clearly caught the public imagination.
"When you can take everyday objects and turn them into something that feels dangerous, that always works for horror movies," notes Dauberman, who penned 2014's Annabelle - set right before The Conjuring - and 2017's Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the entire franchise showing how the doll came into being.
The doll also appeared in The Conjuring 2 and this year's Wan-and Dauberman produced The Curse of La Llorona - not to mention in-joke cameos in Wan's Aquaman and David Sandberg's Shazam!
Now, with Dauberman scripting, Annabelle Comes Home takes us back to the Warrens' house, where Annabelle has been entombed. Until, that is, the Warrens leave for a case and their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) is left with a babysitter (Madison Iseman) and her friend (Katie Sarife), who has her own reasons for visiting the basement …
The Warrens have always been the emotional core. Played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, Dauberman calls the actors "the heart and soul of this franchise", adding, "even in the spin-offs, they have a presence".
While that's true - with both appearing in The Nun - this is the first time the Warrens have surfaced in an Annabelle film and their inclusion lends credibility to Dauberman's movie. "It's because of them that a lot of this franchise works," he says, "because they give it a really authentic (feel) and elevate the movies."
It's also the first of the Conjuring movies to take place since Lorraine Warren died, aged 92, in April. Dauberman, who spent time during Annabelle Come Home with Lorraine and Ed's daughter Judy, "very briefly" met Lorraine at the premiere of the original Conjuring movie.
"She was just as I wanted her to be. She was very sweet, very kind … she's the one who can sense auras, but I think everybody could sense she had some aura to her. Even for the briefest time I got to spend with her, it was very memorable and something that touched me."
When Dauberman began to script Annabelle Comes Home, he wanted to play around with what is essentially another tale of demonic possession.
Firstly, to notch up the intensity, he condensed the time frame "to take place over the course of one night". He also decided to set it in the Warrens' house. "We hadn't done that in any of the movies yet," he adds. Usually a safe space, despite the creepy objects in the basement, this time it becomes a paranormal battleground.
While many from the Conjuring Universe could be regarded as haunted house films, Annabelle Comes Home further tinkers with classic tropes. Ever since Jamie Lee Curtis' babysitter in Halloween was hounded by Michael Myers, this predominantly teenage archetype has been a horror staple.
Dauberman admits he loved the "throwback vibe" by introducing such a character into the series. "It felt to me fresh for the universe and for the franchise. And it was fun to play around with those tropes. It's no accident."
If anything should get audiences out for Annabelle Comes Home, it's Dauberman. Beginning his career in low-budget horror, he got his big break penning Annabelle. Since then, aside from being a creative force in the Conjuring Universe, he was one of the screenwriters on Stephen King's It. The 2017 film grossed US$700 million around the world. Dauberman has since taken solo writing duties on It: Chapter 2, due this autumn.
He's also working on another King adaptation, Salem's Lot. "All I can say is, I love the book and I'm trying to remain as faithful as I can to that book," he says.
"It's a lot of story and you're trying to compact it into a couple of hours. So that's challenging but I'm trying to remain as faithful to the book, because honestly who's going to do it better than Stephen King? I'm excited to play around (with it). I feel like there hasn't been a great vampire movie in a long time."
Annabelle Comes Home opens on June 26 in the US and various other countries, and on July 4 in Hong Kong
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