They used to call Hitchcock “The Master of Suspense.”
Gary Dauberman is no Alfred Hitchcock. Not yet. But the directing debut of the fellow who’s been conjuring these haunted doll “Annabelle” movies makes his directing debut in a stylish and above all else suspenseful third film in this corner of the “Conjuring” universe — “Annabelle Comes Home.”
The screenwriter of “It” has delivered a chiller with genuine chills, dread and just a dash of heart.
The chills come from the usual things that go bump in the night, a simple tale about a haunted girl, her baby sitter and the babysitter’s rules-busting friend who unleashes the horrors of a locked room packed with a demonically-possessed typewriter, wedding dress, piano and most dangerous of all — the doll they call “Annabelle.”
The heart comes from Dauberman & Co.’s success at sentimentalizing those old school carny hustlers, Lorraine and Ed Warren, the original “ghostbusters,” into folk heroes fighting the good fight with only their legends (“Amityville”) as reward.
We first met them in “The Conjuring” (2013), old school paranormal investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. With the “Annabelle” movies, they’ve been promoted to full-time guardians, keeping of the forces of darkness at bay by locking up haunted artifacts in a room of their New England home, with lots of signs warning “keep locked” and “Stay Out” and the occasional splash of holy water to maintain the status quo.
In “Annabelle Comes Home,” they’re busy with lectures, travels and exorcisms. Lorraine, the one with The Sight, sees dead people — in passing cemeteries, standing by cars they just wrecked.
Farmiga, one of the best actresses to grace any modern horror picture, gives these B-movie moments A-movie pathos.
Ed is the pragmatic true believer, keeping them on task and on the road.
Which is why they won’t be at home this 1971 weekend, leaving Daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) with their favorite sitter, good girl Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman).
Every good girl has to have a going-wrong BFF, and that’s the wild child Daniela (Katie Sarife), wound up and ready, willing and able to get her pal into the arms of the goofy dreamboat who’s too shy to ask her out — Bob (Michael Cimino, no not THAT Michael Cimino).
Daniela is hellbent on inviting herself over. Daniela is deathly curious about what the Warrens do for a living. Daniela REALLY wants to get into that artifacts room.
Daniela has her reasons.
And on this night, Daniela’s going to get her wish and all hell — or at least that Doll from Down Below, locked in a display — is going to break loose.
The period details, from the earth-tone, brass, glass and wood Mid Century Modern (“Mad Men”) furniture to the costumes and music, are spot on.
The artifacts are a mix of the quaint and the cliched.
The kids’ reactions to the rising terror have all these horror conventions — “rules” — to abide by, which lessens the pleasures of the movie-watching experience just a smidge. Judy sees dead people, and hides that fact. Daniela finds a key, and hides that fact. Stuff starts to hit the fan, and nobody calls the cops or warns anybody else in the house. Etc.
But the “suspense” I began this review talking about is in most every scene. Dauberman takes his time getting the parents out of town, clings to the creepy silences of a house that has spirits moving this or that, darting here and here, and makes anticipation the most dreaded element in watching “Annabelle.”
Keep those crucifixes handy, kids. You’ll never know what’s unleashed next.
The effects are mostly of the simplest variety, the foreshadowing leaves just enough surprises to make things interesting.
The album that Mary Ellen keeps on the stereo, the one that sometimes starts playing on its own, is Badfinger’s “Straight Up,” the one that had “No Matter What,””Baby Blue” and Day After Day” on it. Listen to how composer Joseph Bishara builds suspense in one of those “record player starts by itself-song keeps going” moments by repeating, over and over, the piano bridge to the lilting “Day After Day.”
It grows more sinister by the second.
Not to oversell this paint-by-numbers genre picture, which has some good performances and some perfunctory ones, but little moments like that and Farmiga’s motherly, can-do approach to the supernatural as Lorraine, and you’ve got a horror movie that pulls you in, bumps you back into your seat and almost brings a tear to the eye.
And nobody’s entrails have to be splayed all over the wall, no woman gets tortured and evil may or may not triumph. But we’re secure in the deead that it’s never really vanquished, either.
MPAA Rating: R for horror violence and terror
Credits: Written and directed by Gary Dauberman. A Warner Brothers/New Line release.
Running time: 1:46