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story.lead_photo.caption Annabelle, a 19th-century porcelain doll, is not herself a demonic spirit. But she is a conduit for demonic spirits. And apparently that distinction is import- ant. Her story continues in Annabelle Comes Home, the latest installment of the Conjuring horror franchise.

Annabelle, the titular doll, a favorite of evil demons everywhere, wears a 19th-century-style satin dress that clasps all the way up her neck, with a cloth sash around her waist that forms into a jaunty sort of rose. Behind her Mary Hartman-like bangs and pig tails, her face is alabaster with dark, shadowy undercurrents, and her prominent cheek bones further highlight the smile on her ruby-red lips. From different angles, that smile runs from more subdued, a kind of genial look you might give someone you think you recognize at the grocery, to a teeth-barring enthusiasm, as if your favored guests have just arrived to the dinner party.

We are told early on that despite her macabre appearance, Annabelle, even at her most malevolent, isn't actually possessed by the demons who flock to her, but rather, she's a conduit for their business, like a particularly inviting beacon, signifying to the ghouls safe passage to the corporeal world.

Annabelle Comes Home

87 Cast: Vera Farmiga, Mckenna Grace, Patrick Wilson, Madison Iseman, Emily Brobst, Samara Lee, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Rating: R, for horror, violence and terror

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

This info comes to us via Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), the psychic, whom along with her doting husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), form the formidable team of spiritualists upon whose real-life case file the Conjuring and, more recently, the Annabelle series have been based (though, not being terribly familiar with their work, I would have to imagine we've now moved pretty far away from anything remotely resembling their realm).

As it happens, in this seventh film in the (sigh) Conjuring universe, the Warrens themselves aren't terribly involved -- they are away at some professional event -- instead it's their pre-adolescent daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace), along with her kindly baby sitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and Mary Ellen's best friend, Daniella (Katie Sarife), who have to suffer through a night of terrors.

It is Daniella, fresh from a horrible car wreck that caused the death of her father, who acts as the catalyst to the evil spirit's whims. Evincing an excuse to send Judy out of the Warrens' house with Mary Ellen, Daniella scours the place, looking for the keys that unlock the Warren's terrible Basement of Occult Horrors, where, among many other macabre objets de terreur, there sits the Annabelle doll, smiling benevolently, behind special church glass that "contains" the evil around her (all of the films in the series are broadly Catholic, with the evil spirits succumbing to the sign of the cross and holy water, like a bottle of Roundup against a cluster of crabgrass).

In an attempt to speak with her dead father, Daniella unwittingly releases Annabelle from her glass prison, which sets up a night of formidable horror for the trio -- and poor, guileless Bob (Michael Cimino), the teenage boy who lives across the street who has a huge crush on the winsome Mary Ellen.

Set up like a bottle episode on TV series, the action keeps all the characters in one place, unable to escape, which allows writer/director Gary Dauberman (making his directorial debut, after penning many of the previous films) to cultivate the uneasy apprehension the film keeps building. Indeed, by using commendable restraint, and pacing the film to a slow boil, Dauberman allows the tension to become more and more palpable as things continue to go bump in the dark.

Adding to the stress, everybody is trying to hide crucial information from everyone else: Judy, who has the same sort of psychic vision as her mother (though she lacks the wisdom of experience), sees Annabelle and other haunts throughout the house, but is afraid to say anything to the others; Mary Ellen has an early run-in with the Ferryman, an evil apparition from the Warrens' case files, but keeps her mouth shut; and, of course, Daniella doesn't want to admit what she has done (and here, because the film actually gives her character an understandable reason for her invasive snooping, our sympathies remain intact for all three of them).

There are underpinnings of genuine emotional relatability at work as well -- Judy, in particular, is sad because she's being ostracized at school for having such out-there parents, and her birthday is seemingly taking place without the participation of her classmates -- that serve to give the film just enough emotional tissue to hold together coherently, giving it considerable emotional stakes.

There is also something to be said for the production design, helmed by Jennifer Spence, which fairly glories in its '70s-era setting (a trip to the grocery store reveals not only a 20-cent comic rack, but a variety of cake mixes indexed by color -- "yellow," "white," "pink" -- and not flavor), especially at the Warrens' house, which is all shag carpets, white Formica tables, and a hallway enwrapped in rose-vine wallpaper. Even period-specific TV shows (including The Dating Game) feel appropriately creepy.

It is also worth noting that despite her top billing, Annabelle is indeed not herself a figure of demonic possession. Thankfully, this isn't a Chucky installment with an insufferably wisecracking little serial murderer. The film keeps her as a talisman of evil rather than an instigator, which allows the other grisly ghouls to go about their business unimpeded by a pint-size terror getting in their way.

In fact, for a genre not exactly known for its careful restraint, Dauberman gives us a more welcome comeback in keeping with its '70s decor: a sense of impending doom punctuated by a careful reserve, doling out the creeps until they finally ramp up into full-bore bedlam. The ever-smiling Annabelle might seem demur, but that little hostess can throw a hell of a party when she sets her mind to it.

MovieStyle on 06/21/2019

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