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Cliche-heavy ‘Annabelle Comes Home’ should have stayed away

The film is filled with jump scares and even more creepy musical crescendos that make you think a jump scare is coming even when it isn’t.

STEVE COULTER as Father Gordon, VERA FARMIGA as Lorraine Warren and the Annabelle doll in New Line Cinema’s horror film “ANNABELLE COMES HOME,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Steve Coulter as Father Gordon and Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren share screen time with Annabelle the doll in the horror film “Annabelle Comes Home.”
Warner Bros. Pictures

If you’re looking for a fanboy review to rank “Annabelle Comes Home” in its rightful place among the “Conjuring Universe” movies, I have some pithy advice any horror buff should understand: GET OUT.

First of all, can you really call this a cinematic universe? “The Conjuring” (from 2013) has now spawned six sequels, spinoffs and spinoff sequels. Which is more than enough to qualify as a franchise. But how does reworking the same idea over and over again match the world-creation of Marvel’s superheroes, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or (more to the point) Stephen King’s loosely/slyly linked tales of horror?

But never mind. “Annabelle Comes Home” is the third film titled after a scary-looking antique doll that is not, repeat not, the Bride of Chucky. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles as paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren in a prologue that sees them “containing the evil” of the doll by locking it in a case made of glass from a ruined church, then leaving their mopey preteen daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), under the protection of perky blond babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman).

Playing the part of Pandora is Mary Ellen’s BFF Daniela (Katie Sarife), who, as the brunette, is naturally the “naughty” one. Hoping to contact her dead father (yawn), she sneaks into the Warrens’ forbidden room of haunted artifacts and lets Annabelle loose.

What follows is pretty standard trapped-in-the-house horror fare, filled with jump scares and even more creepy musical crescendos that make you think a jump scare is coming even when it isn’t. Gradually, various apparitions from the haunted artifacts (a wedding dress, a suit of samurai armor) terrorize the girls, with the eventual goal of murder and possession.

Unlike the Bride of Chucky, Annabelle isn’t animated. She can only move by teleportation and only when nobody’s looking. Her appearance in unexpected places is a jump scare in itself, even when it doesn’t come with any supernatural fireworks.

The real engine of “horror” here seems to be a psychology experiment on object permanence. You know, like when they test babies to see if they’re surprised when things seem to disappear in violation of the laws of physics.

Madison Iseman (from left, as Mary Ellen), Katie Sarife (as Daniela) and McKenna Grace as Judy Warren in a scene from the horror film “Annabelle Comes Home.”
Madison Iseman (from left, as Mary Ellen), Katie Sarife (as Daniela) and McKenna Grace as Judy Warren in a scene from the horror film “Annabelle Comes Home.”
Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s a ghost in the back seat! Oh, it’s gone. OMG, how did Annabelle get THERE!

For the demons and their tender prey, it’s a cat and mouse game, but the relationship between the audience and filmmakers needs a different metaphor. We are the cats, and they have the laser pointer. We just can’t stop chasing the red dot.

That haunted Feeley Meeley game is in the living room now! Any bets on whether the girls will be tempted to play?

Basically, “Annabelle Comes Home” is an R-rated “Jumanji,” with fewer jokes and creepier CGI. But the problem is there aren’t any rules to this game. Some spirits are limited to illusions and mind tricks, others have powers such as telekinesis … but only sometimes?

An ever-changing obstacle course does sustain its own kind of tension, but it’s not like there’s a real puzzle to solve, nor any arc to the plot. The movie is just a succession of scary stuff happening, haunted-ride-style, until someone manages to lock Annabelle up again.

The characters are as thinly sketched as the plot, including the babysitter, the bestie and the goofy love interest (Michael Cimino). So it’s really up to 12-year-old Grace (she turns 13 on June 25) to carry the movie. Her Judy — bright, isolated and starting to see dead people (inheriting her mother’s curse/gift) — radiates an aura of resigned doom that would do Wednesday Addams proud. You can imagine her growing up to take over the family business, a battle-hardened Sarah Connor armed with crucifixes and holy water instead of rocket launchers.

Who knows, maybe that script is already on the assembly line.