"Annabelle Comes Home," the latest entry in Gary Dauberman's successful horror franchise, feels like a test of David Lynch's oft-cited theory that 70 index cards equal a feature film.
He didn't say they have to be related, did he?
Dauberman, the screenwriter and co-creator of the "Annabelle" franchise — part of the "Conjuring" universe — makes his directorial debut with this third installment. It's a mix of high points and low points, much like the overall series itself.
The characters can be compelling, the young cast (all female) is engaging and there's even a little thread of pathos running through the story. Somewhere around the 50th index card, though, the ideas lose focus, the story unravels and "Annabelle Comes Home" starts to feel like a stack of random ideas.
The movie gets off to a fairly strong start. Ed and Lorraine Warren, the famed paranormal investigators (series regulars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), provide a slight twist to the usual baby-sitting scenario: Their daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), has a touch of clairvoyance, like Mom.
Their basement is spookier than the average, too, filled with evil objects from old cases. The only local girl brave enough to take a weekend-long gig watching Judy is Mary Ellen, played by Madison Iseman as a plucky, All-American blonde.
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Enter Daniela, a raven-haired troublemaker who invites herself over, makes a bee-line for the basement and discovers a glass case containing the doll Annabelle (she of the ginger pigtails and death-mask smile).
This is where things get good. Daniela, played with smarts and a sly sexuality by Katie Sarife, feels like a blend of Louise Brooks in "Pandora's Box" and Veronica Lodge in the "Archie" comics.
"What'd you do to get in here?" she asks the doll, as if addressing a fellow delinquent. Daniela has a personal reason for dabbling with damnation, though, making her the film's most (perhaps only) complex character.
During the film's enjoyable first acts, Dauberman lights a slow fuse and patiently lets it burn. He has fun with the early-'70s backdrop, using the forgotten board game Feeley Meeley to create a couple of shivery moments.
Once Annabelle gets loose and wreaks havoc, though, Dauberman throws in every idea from his corkboard: Demons, dead priests, bloody brides, a doorway to the afterlife. Cinematographer Michael Burgess ("The Curse of La Llorona") shoots most of it in a muddy charcoal-gray, as if trying to hide the cliches.
"Annabelle Comes Home" is a letdown partly because it starts out so well. It would be interesting to see Dauberman, who also adapted Stephen King's "It" (2017), tackle a coming-of-age film or even a straight-ahead drama and use a fresh deck.