A free copy of this film was sent by Warner Bros for review. All opinions are my own.
It wasn't too long ago that horror movies were frequently being sanitized (either by design or - gross - by 11th hour retooling) in order to get a PG-13 rating. The thinking was that the R rating was too restrictive and would cost the film some much-needed dollars at the box office, not to mention inadvertently pad the numbers for the competition from all the kids who would simply buy a ticket for a PG film and walk into the R rated film, anyway. It was a sore spot for hardcore genre fans, but when total junk like The Unborn was outgrossing R-rated competition like Jennifer's Body (both 2009), it wasn't hard to see the studio's reasoning.
But then a funny thing happened: James Wan's The Conjuring got an R rating despite being made more or less with a PG-13 in mind. The film has no explicit violence and very little blood (basically just from small injuries), let alone things like swearing or nudity, but the MPAA decided the film was simply too scary to allow anyone under 17 to see it without a guardian. However, no one seemed to care much - the film grossed just under $140m in the US alone, topping recent competition like Paranormal Activity to become the highest-grossing R rated horror film since Blair Witch Project nearly 15 years earlier. More importantly, it outgrossed PG-13 summer competitors like The Wolverine, Pacific Rim, and The Lone Ranger, all of which carried much higher price tags as well. There are other factors of course, but if Conjuring was a dud, there's little chance we have two big-budget R rated It films to enjoy right now.
However, there's another side effect from this success, and it's a somewhat ironic one. Because of the original's "got an R just for being too scary" infamy, the sequels and spinoffs are all R-rated too, despite, you know, not quite hitting the same terror levels as the first Conjuring did. They've all more or less retained the first film's approach (no explicit violence or gore, no swearing, etc), but if a Conjuringverse film came along that was PG-13, it would be telling fans right off the bat that it wasn't as scary as the others, which might turn some off. In some cases it's fine; the first Annabelle's cult murder elements put it pretty close to R territory, but for The Nun (the franchise's low point in my opinion) it barely even qualified as intense enough for a PG-13, so it felt like a bit of a ripoff.
Which brings me to Annabelle Comes Home, the first film in the franchise I think they actually did themselves a disservice by giving it the restricted rating. As has been the case with every installment of this (now seven strong) franchise, there's nothing in the traditional MPAA guidelines that would cost this to lose a PG-13 rating - but producers do request their rating and as long as the MPAA has no issue with it, that's what they get, regardless of specifics. But the thing is, this particular entry is actually the best of the Annabelle films (and other spinoffs), and now that it's hitting Blu-ray at the perfect time of the year, it's a shame that a parent might see the rating and opt not to rent it for their kid's (specifically, daughter's) Halloween sleepover, because it's practically tailor-made for such occasions.
And I'm not saying that dismissively; I am obviously not a 14-year-old girl and I liked it quite a bit. But whereas Annabelle: Creation kept leaving the younger girls out of it for stretches involving the adult characters played by Anthony LaPaglia and Stephanie Sigman, this one spends nearly all of its runtime with the young women, taking place in one night at the Warren residence when the evil energy from their haunted artifacts room is unleashed. The Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) pop up in extended cameos, but only to bookend the film - once they leave about fifteen minutes in, the girls are on their own until our familiar heroes (making their first appearance in a Conjuring spinoff outside of archival footage) return in the morning. Long story short, it's basically a movie ABOUT a sleepover, and thus a perfect option to rent for younger teens who have maybe outgrown Hocus Pocus but aren't quite ready for Freddy or Jason.
Plus, it's actually a good example of such fare, thanks to relatively strong character development for the three young women, all of whom have their personal demons to overcome while fighting off, well, actual demons. Our main protagonist is Judy, the Warrens' daughter (McKenna Grace, taking over from Sterling Jerins as the timeline required her to be a bit younger) who has some of her mother's intuitive abilities but just wants a normal life. Unfortunately, some negative press about her parents has spread to her classmates, and now she's seen as a weirdo by her friends - right as her birthday approaches and they start turning down her invitations (it's pretty heartbreaking to watch, actually). Meanwhile, her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) fills the audience surrogate role - no doubt there will be some veteran sitters in the audience who will be in "What would *I* do?" mode for large chunks of the film, as she has to constantly put her own life on the line to help the girl she's being paid well below minimum wage to watch.
But the real MVP is Daniela, played by Katie Sarife. She's introduced as Mary Ellen's best friend, who invites herself over after the Warrens leave and seems fixated on their haunting stuff. When she convinces Mary Ellen to take Judy out roller skating (and thus having the place to herself) your eyes might roll because you know what's coming, and sure enough - within seconds she's touching things that say "Don't touch" and singlehandedly unleashing all of the things that will torment them throughout the night. However, it's not just a case of a dumb horror movie character doing dumb things in order to move the plot forward and nothing else - she's actually hoping that one of the objects can put her in touch with her father, who was recently killed in a car crash she blames herself for causing. Knowing that there's a way to contact the "other side", she has a real reason for poking around, as she needs to know if he forgives her from the afterlife.
It's a surprisingly moving subplot for any mainstream horror film, let alone the third entry in a spinoff series about an evil doll. The conclusion of this particular plotline actually made me tear up a bit (having lost my own father far too young, this sort of stuff usually plays me like a fiddle, admittedly), but once I cleared my throat and put my "horror movie guy" hat back on, I realized how clever it was for writer/director Gary Dauberman to take such a cliched, stock character in horror movies (the meddling troublemaker) and turn them into the film's most memorable, giving Daniela an arc instead of just turning her into demon fodder to justify the R rating. That it's an element in a funhouse kind of horror movie that tosses werewolves and mummies into the mix, allowing them to use Annabelle a bit more selectively than the two other entries, is just icing on the cake.
So as Halloween approaches, I urge parents to ignore the R - it's a PG-13 movie in all the ways that matter, with admirable female leads and a "feel good" ending, to boot. The only major flaw is that Patrick Wilson's Ed grabs his guitar again but the scene fades out before he really starts to play, denying us another of his Elvis renditions. Jokes aside, I hope they opt to end this spinoff series on this high note (it's already a bit weird there are more Annabelle movies than actual Conjuring ones, as C3 is still in production); folks seem to be divided over which of the first two is better (Creation being the usual pick), but so far just about everyone agrees this is the best of the trio, and they should quit while they are ahead and focus on some of these other monsters now that they've been introduced. Bring on the Ferryman movie!