In a country that should probably think about renaming itself the American Entertainment State, fan culture now produces an obsessive level of pop scholasticism, one that can parse the rules and details of movies and TV shows as if they were fine points of law. In a review of a horror movie, I once called a character a zombie who was not, technically, a zombie (he didn’t have the precise credentials to be classified as the living dead), and tons of readers called me out on it. I learned my lesson, even though a stubborn part of me still thinks, “If it walks like a zombie, and talks like a zombie…”
There’s a comparable bit of pesky Talmudic niggling woven into the premise of the “Annabelle” films, of which “Annabelle Comes Home” is the third, and maybe the most hyper and generic. Annabelle is one of those creepy Victorian dolls that has been a staple of horror films for decades. In her bangs and red-bowed pigtails, with a sallow face marked by sunken but popping eyes, bloody scratches, and a ripe smile, she bears a marked resemblance to the ventriloquist dummy in the 1978 Anthony Hopkins psycho thriller “Magic.” That fixed grin of hers promises a great deal of mischief, and “Annabelle Comes Home,” in its almost completely haphazard and what-the-hell-let’s-go-to-hell way, delivers it.
If this movie had been made several decades ago, Annabelle would likely have been a female Chucky, a demon figurine wreaking violent havoc. But the film’s annoyingly arcane premise demands that the audience understand that Annabelle is not, herself, possessed. No way! “The doll was never possessed,” a character declares. “It was used as a conduit!” What this means is that Annabelle, even though she’s portrayed as a dark and dangerous devil doll, isn’t coming to life. She’s channeling the spirits around her, acting as a lightning rod for evil. Do you get the distinction? I actually think I do. Do you care? I think I couldn’t care less.
The grand result of all this cheesy metaphysical heavy lifting is that “Annabelle Comes Home” is a relentless but awkward throw-everything-at-the-viewer occult thriller that mixes ghosts, looming spirits, and — yes — inanimate objects coming to life, with the figure of Annabelle not so much at the scary center of the action as existing alongside it. She’s the conduit, all right, and the mascot, and the source of all the trouble. But mostly she’s the film’s emblem, the hood ornament of its Amityville 3.0 brand, and if you take her out of the equation, which isn’t hard to do (since, conduit qualities aside, she’s barely in the equation), you’re left with one more ADD mashup of a haunted-house thriller and “The Exorcist,” which is the anything-goes formula of the “Conjuring” films. These are “religious” horror movies for people who would channel surf through the Devil himself.
The “Annabelle” films are prequels spun off from the “Conjuring” universe, and the first sure sign that they were second tier is that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, as the fretfully eager true-life Christian devil busters Ed and Lorraine Warren, didn’t even make an appearance in the first two movies. But they’re on hand to set up “Annabelle Comes Home,” a haunted-house thriller that takes place almost entirely in their roomy dark-shadowed suburban home, which is done up in conflicting patterns of floral wallpaper and a muted rainbow of gloomy autumnal ’70s colors.
Ed, who’s played by Wilson as the Pat Boone of exorcists, and Lorraine, embodied by Farmiga with a righteous tenderness, have been at their paranormal investigations for a while now, and are generating some headlines. They’ve got a room in their home stuffed with all the occult artifacts they’ve gathered from their adventures. It’s like a museum of ghoulish bric-a-brac, and though it’s right there on the ground floor, in what might have been a sprawling extra bedroom, it functions in the film like the basement you’re not supposed to go into.
Its centerpiece is the case of sacred glass, taken from a church, in which Annabelle resides. She’s locked up in there so that she can’t do her mischief. But on a night when the Warrens’ 10-year daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), is at home with her two high-school babysitters, the saintly blonde Marcia Brady-like Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and the sneaky dark Nancy-Allen-in-“Carrie”-like Daniela (Katie Sarife), all hell breaks loose. That’s because Daniela, fixated on the growing legend of the Warrens, can’t resist going into the ghost museum and poking around. And, of course, just about the first thing she does is to unlock Annabelle’s case. Beware, the conduit is loose!
The Warren home looks like the sort of place where you want to sit back and watch bad TV, which the characters in this movie periodically do. But then the scary stuff happens, and in its rambunctious spirit-world way it’s like more bad TV. Directing his first feature, Gary Dauberman, the screenwriter of the first two “Annabelle” films as well as “The Nun,” knows how to squeeze a few drops of anticipatory sweat out of the audience. He makes clever atmospheric use of Badfinger’s 1971 hit “Day After Day,” especially in a moment when he extends the song’s piano motif, over and over, turning it into a have-a-nice-day version of “Tubular Bells.” But there’s a paradox to his skill: The fake scares in “Annabelle Comes Home” are scarier than the real scares. That’s because when it comes to what should be the film’s heart of darkness, there’s no there there.
A snarling horned devil. A werewolf out of “The Howling.” A white-haired priest who turns into one of those ghosts who will stare at you from across the street, like a specter out of “Insidious” or “Hereditary.” A typewriter typing “Miss me Miss me.” Gengis Khan’s armor springing to life. (But then why can’t Annabelle come to life? Oh, never mind.) Name your fear trigger, and it’s probably there, somewhere, in “Annabelle Comes Home.” It looks like a horror film, but it’s really the horror equivalent of speed dating.