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The scarier Stranger Things vibe on the set of Annabelle Comes Home

By Adam Pockross
Gary Dauberman and Madison Iseman on the set of Annabelle Comes Home

The third film in the freaky doll corner of The Conjuring Universe is going by the title Annabelle Comes Home, and as SYFY WIRE found out while visiting the set during production late last year, that home is downright frightening.

The home in question is the humble mid-century abode of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), the famed paranormal investigators who, while not out exorcising malevolent spirits, are just trying to live a quiet suburban life in Connecticut with their 10-year-old daughter, Judy (played by the insanely gifted Mckenna Grace). That said, they do have a basement filled to the brim with ancient artifacts and the conduits of evil, including one terrifyingly maniacal doll. So yeah, not your average parents or neighbors.

The spooky home was built under the direction of Gary Dauberman, the long-time Conjuring Universe writer (who is making his directorial debut), on Warner Bros.' Stage 9. During our visit, unit publicist James Ferrera led us from room to room whilst holding one of his many collected crosses high above his head, just for safety. Paired with a set blessing conferred by a priest, we felt relatively secure.

"It was kind of eerie, blessing a set… it was creepy, but it was cool," said Madison Iseman (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ), who plays Mary Ellen, the Warren's trusted babysitter. Her cool enthusiasm couldn't begin to match that of Grace, who maintains every bit of the childlike awe and joy that every 12-year-old uber horror fan should possess.

"I was so excited all day and I got to meet Mr. Father Tom, and he gave me a Rosary that looks just like this, and smells like roses, and it has Pope Francis on it, and Pope Francis blessed it, and I'm so excited! It was so exciting, I loved it, and he was so nice, and he threw some holy water and some of it got on my head," Grace said, as a roomful of hardened entertainment journalists ate out of her hand. "He blessed me, Katie and Madison."

The third member of that holy trinity is Katie Sarife, who plays Daniella, Mary Ellen's high school classmate. She comes over to hang out at the Warren household when the parents are ghosthunting, and indeed, most of the film's action takes place over the course of Ed and Lorraine's absence, with some quality setup from Wilson and Farmiga.

The Annabelle doll in Annabelle Comes Home

So there's a bit of a Goonies/Stranger Things vibe, with the kids doing the hero-ing; and there's a similar retro-vibe too, with the '70s setting of the pic. But any kid team is only as good as the sum of its parts, and there's considerable talent here: Judy is the youngest but wisest (we're given hints that she has similar otherworldly sight as her mother); Mary Ellen the perfectly put-together one who always does the right thing; and Daniella, who just wants to have fun.

"She's also got this wild curiosity with the afterlife and everything, because she had a close lost loved-one, so she's very interested in all of that," explained Safrie, who wasn't the only person on this set fiddling with Rosary beads. "She's that friend that gets you out of your bubble, pushes you a little bit."

This is certainly true in a scene we watched director Dauberman and his crew filming. It featured Daniella, Mary Ellen, and Judy sitting around Ed's office, looking through old case files, and watching old footage from those creepy cases, zeroing in an accursed wedding dress. Daniella is obviously interested in the material, inquiring about a mourner's bracelet that allows contact with the dead, then expressing interest in observing an exorcism. Judy and Mary Ellen, on the other hand, appear uneasy about delving any further into Ed's stuff.

If you've seen the trailer, you know that Daniella is initially not uneasy about this stuff, as she finds her way into the artifact room itself, and unleashes not just Annabelle's fury, but also an array of other creepy paranormal paraphernalia housed in the unholy basement.

"It'll be really cool when you see what all comes to life. We've got like a lot of fun different things, in addition to Annabelle," said Sarife.

This is the Conjuring Universe's slightly larger third version of the artifact room, replete with fun stuff like a dusty piano, a stuffed German Shepherd, a ceramic horse, creepy masks, and that accursed wedding gown. There are also familiar hero props like the music box, the samurai armor, a painting of The Nun, and the clapping monkey. And of course, that damn Annabelle doll.

"She'll look at you… it's just not fun," said Iseman, who had just recently shared her first scene with arguably the most frightening doll in cinematic history. "I remember when I got my first meeting with Gary [Dauberman], she's just chilling in his office, and we just walked in and I'm like, 'Okay, let's go over the script.' And Annabelle's just hanging out with us. Yeah, she's scary."

Granted, we're not even talking about the actual cursed doll, who is housed at the Occult Museum in Ed and Lorraine Warren's old house in Connecticut. The movie version has changed a little with every film since the first Conjuring — here she looks more like the original doll, just after Ed and Lorraine pick her up from the nurse's apartment and decide to take her to the home they share with a 10-year-old child.

Annabelle Comes Home poster

The creepy artifacts did not take up all of the production team's time, as the house is filled with little details that reflect its period setting. It's constructed with so much detail, set designer Jenny Spence even made sure the linoleum underneath the fridge is clean (like in your house, when you had linoleum), there are family circle recipes lying around, and a Badfinger album spins on the vintage record player. There's even period correct toys and games, like Sorry, Life, Monopoly, Battleship, Yahtzee, and Tinker Toys.

There's even a painting done by Spence (The Nun, Annabelle: Creation) in the style of Ed Warren, who really used to paint the haunted houses he and Lorraine would visit. "I sat on the floor for four hours and whipped that up," Spence explained. "But in thinking about it, I looked at his style and so I could try to copy that. But also, I thought, 'Well that's a great Easter egg. Because it hadn't happened yet, maybe he'd foreseen it."

Such meticulous attention is also paid by costume designer Leah Butler (Annabelle: Creation, Shazam!), who told us that the action takes place over just a small amount of days, so you'll see the characters in the same costumes for much of the action. But don't worry, there's not just the living who needs to be costumed.

While the demonic costumes might be described as paranormal chic, there's a definite '70s feel to the un-undead characters. Butler tells us we'll be seeing a lot of period correct browns, yellows, and oranges, to help "maintain a certain feel."

Indeed, the whole film's design exudes that '70s feel, but the nature of the kiddie conflict itself may also be suggestive of other eras.

"I personally feel like it's got like an '80s coming-of-age feel, with the kids dynamic. And then it's also very female-driven, as far as me, Mary Ellen, and Judy. So it's got that youthful vibe to it, but mixed with the modern horror elements of today," Sarife said, noting it's "horrific fun" (fun!) and has a Goonies/Stranger Things "young kids taking on things" vibe.

"It's definitely more fun. It's always fun to be around people your age… Katie's great... Mckenna's, I mean, she's so good, she opens her mouth and I'm just like, 'What are you doing?'" said Iseman. "Being young, you're more naive... everyone's just a little more curious, which I think is really a fun thing to add into a horror film because then it makes the audience go, 'No, no… don't go in there, don't touch that! Why are you saying that?!' So I think that's a fun thing we get to play around with this time."

While fun's sure to be had by all, it's hard to imagine anyone having more of it than horror-fan-to-the-max Grace, who can barely contain her joy when asked about the best part of this experience. "Everything. Everything about it! I mean just getting to think about it: 'Oh my goodness, I'm in a horror movie!' It's exciting! It's so exciting!"

Annabelle Comes Home comes out April 24. Will you be watching (through your mostly covered eyes)?