The mothership tales about the real-life Warrens’ misadventures has established itself as a reliable, respectful mash-up of ’70s religio-horror, paranorm-core suburban spookiness, finely tuned atmospherics and impeccably timed shrieks and jump scares. As for the Annabelle franchise side hustles, they act like pulpy beta versions of their more prestigious sister series blessed with a dingy, primal-scare–invoking dolly at center stage. Their star is a toy, its face stuck in a rictus. It can, depending on the lighting and camera angle, appear either evil or very evil. These spin-offs sometimes feel like the scary-movie version of the Kuleshov Experiment, in which a portrait of a man staring blankly changes emotional states depending on the shot that follows it. Cut from Annabelle to a bowl of soup, and she seems hungry; cut from her static visage to doors closing of their accord and household items attacking their owners and all manner of chaos, and the scratched-up figurine seems like the choreographer of hell on Earth. It’s such a fine line between silly and bone-chilling.
Thankfully, director/cowriter Gary Dauberman, a veteran of both the series and things-that-go-bump-in-the-psyche storytelling (he was one of several scribes who worked on It) understands that self-serious is not the name of the game this time. If Annabelle Comes Home is the best of the three films to date — a low-ish bar, but still — it’s because he’s well aware that is simplistic story works best as a cross between a haunted house and a carnival funhouse. This is a highly efficient scare machine, trapping its trio of young women in a house filled with board games that sprout hands and a folkloric nightmare known as the Ferryman (“You’ll pay his toll/he’ll take your soul”) and ancient Japanese warrior armor that seems curiously aware of its surroundings. A cute boy (Michael Cimino, no relation to the late director) briefly enters the picture, as does some sort of hellhound creature. When all else fails, simply have someone pulled violently by unseen forces or add unidentifiable whispering voices.