ANNABELLE COMES HOME

Producer: James Wan and Peter Safran
Director: Gary Dauberman
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Stars:  Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Michael Cimino, Stephen Blackehart, Steve Coulter, Samara Lee, Paul Dean and Joseph Bishara
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema

C+

The second malevolent doll movie to appear in as many weeks (the other being the remake of “Child’s Play”), this third entry in the “Annabelle” series of the so-called Conjuring Universe is, like the first two, a grab-bag of arbitrary scare tropes that doesn’t amount to much but will probably satisfy the desire of fans for another helping of frights, though they might be disappointed by the fact that this installment is less gory and more humorous than the previous ones.

Written and directed by Gary Dauberman, who also penned the first two pictures, “Annabelle Comes Home” begins with a scene that looks back to one included in both the original “Conjuring” and the first “Annabelle,” in which paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) take possession of the doll from the last folks saddled with it. On the drive home, it reveals its power to release spirits from their graves. That leads Lorraine to identify Annabelle as a “conduit” or “beacon” through which the demon inhabiting it can arouse other evil forces from the items in which they are trapped.

So, after having the doll blessed by a priest, they install it in a locked case in the multi-locked “treasure” room of dangerous objects in their suburban home, complete with a prominent sign warning all never to open the cabinet up.

Some time later, the Warrens’ young daughter Judy (McKenna Grace)—who’s bullied at school because of her parents’ vocation—is being left with her kindly young babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) while Ed and Lorraine go off on another case—just on the verge of the girl’s birthday, of all times. The two are soon unexpectedly joined by Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), a dark-haired troublemaker, who—it turns out—has reasons, because of guilt over an accident for which she feels responsible, to contact the other side.

So as the evening rolls on, Daniela finds the opportunity not only to rifle through Ed’s study, find the keys to the vault, unlock it and not only examine the various artifacts there—a bloody bridal gown, a suit of Japanese armor, a music box, and such—but open Annabelle’s case. That gives the doll the chance to release all the malignant forces imprisoned in the room, sending them into the house to terrorize the three girls—as well as one other person, Bobby Palmeri (Michael Cimino), a fumbling grocery clerk who’s sweet on Mary Ellen and stops by to see her.

This whole section of the movie—by far the bulk of the running-time—is like a trip through a Halloween haunted house, with the various nasty spirits—including a hound from hell, which menaces poor Bobby outside—chasing the four youngsters around the place. The action grows increasingly repetitive, as niftily as the individual moments might be choreographed and shot by Dauberman and cinematographer Michael Burgess, and edited by Kirk Morri. And while the earlier films in the series weren’t afraid to offer serious quantities of violence and gore, this entry stops short in that department, preferring mild suspense, sudden shocks and brooding special effects to actual bloodletting. It seems, in fact, to be intended for a younger demographic than the hard-core horror crowd.

It’s also characteristic that comedy of a pretty juvenile sort is an important component here. That’s especially evident in the character of Bobby, whose inexperience with girls and general squeamishness in the face of danger represent a major thread. Advised by a goofball pizza guy (Bill Kottkamp), he actually tries to serenade Mary Ellen, “Say Anything” style, though he’s hapless about it. And when he flees the hound, it’s hardly accidental that he winds up in a chicken coop. Still, he’s given a heroic moment to compensate, and at the close it looks as if his infatuation is going to pay off in teen romance.

Even the coda, when the return of Ed and Lorrain brings things back to what passes for normal in this household, has the air of a sixties sitcom about it. Order is restored and lessons have been learned by those who need them. Even Jane’s mean classmates come around for her birthday party.

The young quartet at the center of things are all fine, even Sarife—though as written Daniela can be exasperatingly dumb—and Wilson and Farmiga add some gravity to the goings-on, though there’s a more lighthearted quality to their scenes here than was the case in the previous pictures. The supporting players are basically walk-ons, though Kottkamp earns some easy points as that wacky deliveryman.

Where the “Annabelle” series might proceed from here isn’t made apparent from this installment, but the overall franchise will certainly continue, with the “Conjuring” entries ongoing and “The Nun” spawning sequels, even though the recent “The Curse of La Llorona” flopped. If you’re interested in a really intense flick about a possessed doll, though, you might give up waiting for the next Annabelle or Chucky movie and instead check out the “Amelia” segment of the 1975 Dan Curtis ABC telefilm “Trilogy of Terror.” Being just part of an anthology, of course, it doesn’t have to prolong the story the way a feature does, and the effects are pretty primitive by today’s standards; but it still packs far more of a punch than “Child’s Play” or any of the “Annabelle” pictures.