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.Marvel and Star Wars delivered the biggest event movies of the past decade, but “The Conjuring” franchise has churned along with more confidence and consistency than either of them. James Wan’s 2013 entry set the template in motion, with real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) providing a backdrop for endless jump scares. Having grossed upwards of $1.6 billion, “The Conjuring” universe has proven that sometimes, the most lucrative ideas require less CGI wizardry than spooky silence, and the lingering possibility that something terrifying could break it.
Well, that, and one helluva spooky doll. Annabelle, one of several horror tropes laying within the Warrens’ cabinet of paranormal monstrosities, showed the potential to carry her own creepy spin-off from the very first scene of “The Conjuring.” With “Annabelle” and prequel “Annabelle: Creation,” the stationary figure became a gateway for demonic forces seeking the souls of young children. (And, unlike Chucky, Annabelle doesn’t have to move one bit to remain an object of constant dread.) “Annabelle Comes Home” delivers on its title with the best “Conjuring” spin-off so far, in large part because it has such modest aims.Unlike the two-hour-plus “Conjuring” movies or the sprawling convent showdowns of “The Nun,” the new movie basically jams the archetypes of a John Hughes teen comedy into a minimalist haunted house scenario. While that’s not enough to suppress the underlying gimmickry of the storytelling, “Annabelle Comes Home” at least manages to charm and frighten its way through the purest distillation of the “Conjuring” formula to date. It’s not the scariest “Conjuring” movie, but just scary enough to advance the series and expand its reach.