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"Annabelle Comes Home" Review - (Non-Spoiler)

Set in 1973, amid a forest of shag carpeting, “Annabelle Comes Home” is a nice little summer surprise, and quite unexpectedly the freshest of the three “Annabelle” movies spun off from the larger “Conjuring” galaxy of horror films.

Most of the action confines itself to the suburban Connecticut split-level home of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who have business out of town and leave their 10-year-old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), in the loving care of teenage Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman).

The instigating troublemaker, human division, arrives when Mary Ellen’s fellow high school student, Daniela (Katie Sarife), shows up uninvited. Coping with a crushing personal loss, this girl puts on a tough-wiseacre front, though she has her reasons for wanting to know if the notorious Warren household can provide her with some communication with whatever lies beyond.

In the basement, behind lock and key, there’s a collection of satanic objects that must not be messed with. To mess with them is to mess with your life. On the other hand: no mess, no movie. Annabelle, the doll, a wide-eyed, pig-tailed, unholy scamp, is the latest addition to the menagerie, and we learn early on that she’s “a beacon for other spirits,” an un-natural-born leader. This explains why she’s being kept in a glass display case, blessed by a priest. Which helps, for a while.

Unfolding in a single night, writer-director Gary Dauberman’s directorial feature debut can be accused of delivering the same sort of slow-burn, medium-grade jolts in heavy rotation. Yet the film feels light on its feet. It takes the vulnerabilities of the younger characters seriously. It’s “Adventures in Babysitting” meets “Revenge of the Demonic Tchotchkes,” and I liked it more than the box office smash “It,” which Dauberman co-wrote.

The first “Annabelle” (2014) set the table, but on a fairly grubby level, with a visual palette that shrieked “low-budget digital schmalz” with every new under lit interior. “Annabelle Comes Home” likewise dwells in basement murk and inconvenient power outages. In the Warrens’ wood-paneled storage room, various, allegedly inanimate objects spend their days and nights in quarantine. But the cinematographer this time, Michael Burgess, keeps the images vivid and playfully taunting.

The Christian-centric bent of these pictures necessitates a level of gut-level, crucifix-wielding Good versus satanic Evil. I’m not exactly sure why “Annabelle Comes Home” got an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America; it’s less overtly violent than, say, the recent DC superhero item “Shazam!” (PG-13). But we’re talking apples and oranges. As little Judy squares off against Annabelle, flanked by the older girls and a lovestruck grocery clerk, played by Michael Cimino, the spirits manifest themselves as wolves, long-dead priests and other visions of terror.

The reason the movie works, I think, is simple. The actresses are all strong. The character of Daniela is a grieving soul, desperate to communicate with her late father. Dauberman handles this material with disarming sincerity; he finds ways to make you care about these girls as more than cogs in a wheel of the plot. As for Farmiga and Wilson: Something about Wilson’s demeanor always makes me wonder when Ed will reveal himself to be Lucifer’s side burned assistant. But something about Farmiga’s gravity and emotional transparency makes me think, well, if Lorraine thinks Ed’s OK, then he must be OK. I'm going to give "Annabelle Comes Home" a 7 out of 10.

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