Slowly but surely, James Wan is building and reinforcing his horror legacy. Since the success of The Conjuring, the skillful director has extended his universe significantly, even crossing over to areas which we wouldn’t have expected. (Aquaman and Shazam!) It goes to show the pop culture appeal and power of his creations, and leading the pack, is none other than Annebelle.

Annabelle Comes Home is the third installment focusing on the – we’re going to say it – ugly doll, and it is still not clear if the doll is possessed by a ghost, demon, or in the case of this episode – a conduit. What’s next – a portal? We won’t put it past Wan. And this lack of direction shows in the latest chapter in the franchise.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) returns, but is relegated to a supporting role to the mostly teenage cast instead. We all know that the retro/child cast formula is currently trending in Hollywood, and can understand why Wan had to dabble, but he hands over the reins to Gary Dauberman in his directorial debut and the effort is a mixed experience.

Having just returned home with the cursed doll, the Warrens get whipped quickly away for another assignment soon after, leaving the caretaking of their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) to babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). While Mary is a paragon of thoughtfulness and responsibility, her friend Daniela Rios (Katie Sarife) is not quite so. When the rebellious girl finds out about the Warrens’ occupation, she harasses Mary for permission into the house.

The story side arc that emerges from this obsessive curiosity is an excellent one, and Rios gives equal measure as a disaffected but tender young adult. Unlike many other standard wild child characters, her motivations are believable and sympathetic. The same can’t be said for the other two ladies.

While Iseman gives a decent performance, her responses flutter between gutsy and irrational. While still a good guardian, her priorities are not always clear, which makes for some baffling turns in the film.

Grace has a screen presence that far exceeds her years, and that cannot be denied in her scenes. Her doe-eyed innocence explains the strong protection she conjures in the people around her, and her own grit when she becomes the teenagers’ human supernatural library serves her well. But again the fluctuating reactions are confusing. One moment she’s nine, another, 49.

But the film’s biggest flaw isn’t the inconsistent behaviour, but more of its tedious plot. Once the room’s secrets are exposed, the line-up of spirits that manifests, and manifests… and manifests, become repetitive and annoying. There’s only that many shots of dropping coins and murderous brides we can take.

Which leads us to believe that this might be Wan’s way of setting up survey for his next universe’s character. By introducing a whole new host of monsters, the creator is eyeing his next spin-off by using his audience as test subjects. This is not wrong as much as it mars the viewing, but the fact remains that the spirit sequences are too much to take.

Thank the Warrens that some relief comes in the form of Bob “Bob’s got balls” Palmeri (Michael Cimino). His aw-shucks dorkiness lends a much-needed reprieve from the horror madhouse. Even a brief encounter with a gooned-out pizza delivery guy was thoroughly enjoyable, given its levity. 

Annabelle Comes Home is way better than its original, but can afford a few choice snips to avoid scare fatigue. And when it comes to red herrings, this film has quite a few and will no doubt polarise the audience. But given its credible cast and funhouse sort of atmosphere, this entry will still stay as one of the better creations, which does justice to an end tribute to the recently deceased Lorraine Warren. May she rest in peace.

Rating: 4*

A few experimental tricks works to throw scare expectations off-kilter, but the show can benefit from some edits in the chamber of monsters it introduces here for better focus. Scary still.

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