What with Woody, Buzz and Chucky all vying for our attention, a doll’s gotta pull out all the stops to break out of the multiplex pack these days. The titular star of “Annabelle Comes Home,” sorry to say, barely makes an effort. Did the runaway success of her first two films turn her head?
Weirdly, the malevolent breakout toy of the “Conjuring” universe seems to be on the same shoot-it-all-in-a-day schedule as her cameoing costars, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. None of them appear in more than a few scenes, preferring to set things up and then let a cast of (admittedly appealing) unknowns take over.
The above-the-line trio arrives in the opening sequence, when celebrated supernaturalists Lorraine (Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Wilson) are transporting Annabelle to safety around 1972, just after the events of “The Conjuring.” As fans already know, this little artifact of vicious Victoriana tends to attract evil spirits wherever she goes. So the Warrens ask a priest to perform a single rite of protection, and then lock the demonic doll behind church glass. In their own house. Where their 10-year-old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace, “I, Tonya”), also lives.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Yeah, but the actual Warrens kept the actual Annabelle in their house,” congratulations. Writer-director Gary Dauberman made a movie just for you. And you will, indeed, enjoy all the references and Easter eggs he’s placed throughout, with many of them concentrated in the Warrens’ Occult Room. This space is packed to the ceiling with the stuff of nightmares, so you’d think Dauberman — who wrote the other “Annabelle” movies, but makes his directorial debut here — would have been especially inspired.
Instead, the majority of the film is low-level ghost-story stuff, which kicks off a year later when Ed and Lorraine go away for a weekend, cheerfully leaving Judy alone with teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, “Goosebumps 2”). Mary Ellen’s best friend Daniela (Katie Sarife, “Girl Meets World”) has been trying to contact her dad since he died, so when she hears about the Warrens’ work, she insists on staying for the weekend, too. Before you can say “lazy setup,” she’s found the keys to the Basement of Evil and waltzed inside, touching, playing with, and opening every portal to hell.
Soon enough, Annabelle is showing up in various parts of the house, rocking in a chair or grinning maniacally in bed next to Judy. But she doesn’t actually do anything, besides make it easier for other spirits to show up.
So the girls — and Mary Ellen’s baffled crush, Bob (Michael Cimino), who provides light comic relief — spend most of the movie wandering down dark hallways with various light sources that flicker out at just the wrong moment. Will something creepy and tangentially related to the “Conjuring universe” (a dead bride, a werewolf, an unsatisfied ghost) jump out at them this time? No. What about now? Probably not. But definitely after that!
Fortunately, the actors are winning enough that we continue to root for them even when they make countless rookie mistakes. And in fairness, the movie is both set in and endearingly inspired by a more innocent era, so the characters haven’t yet learned the lessons of the post-“Scream” generation.
Still, there’s an awful lot of waiting going on here, even as violins screech and ghost voices whisper. And all the while, that whole room of nastiness is just sitting there, a vault of unexploited potential.
Grace, a 12-year-old with more than 50 IMDb credits, is so good that she makes “Annabelle Come Home” kind of work as psychological drama. We feel for Judy when she’s bullied at school or tries to stay calm in the face of grave danger just like her parents taught her. And production designer Jennifer Spence (“Shazam!”) deserves extra credit for the house’s rigorously ’70s period detail, which is built around a full rainbow of brown.
But when it comes down to it, you can’t have a strong horror movie without a strong villain. Given that Chucky is currently working overtime to torment an entire community, surely Annabelle can do more than offer up a couple of creepy grins before calling it a day.