Given the recent death of Lorraine Warren and release of The Curse of La Llorona, now seems like a good time to reassess and rank the films of The Conjuring Universe. After all, without Lorraine Warren, this Universe wouldn’t exist.
“I really wanted to try and bring the kind of respect back to studio horror filmmaking — Jaws, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, these were big studio films. Real movies with real budgets.”
That’s what director James Wan hoped to achieve with The Conjuring and Conjuring 2, according to a 2016 The New York Times interview. He wanted to bring respectability back to big studio horror movies, and that’s exactly what he did, spawning a new cinematic universe in the process. From The Conjuring has come Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, The Nun, The Curse of La Llorona, and soon Annabelle Comes Home and The Conjuring 3. Collectively, the films have grossed over $1.5 billion, a level of success which has led to some inevitable results: lawsuits and promotions.
The most notable lawsuit alleged copyright infringement and was settled out of court for millions in 2017, freeing New Line from any legal doubt over whether it could continue with The Conjuring Universe. The promotions have seen Wan and producer Peter Safran graduate from New Line’s horror division to Warner Bros.’ DC superhero arm. They’ve been newly deputized to spin some of their Conjuring magic for Aquaman, The Trench, and Shazam!.
None of this would have happened, however, without The Warrens. Active in the field since co-founding of the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952s, husband and wife demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren were either among the most gifted grifters of our time or most spiritually connected and motivated enemies of evil, depending on your personal opinion about the existence of the supernatural in the real world. Their case files spanned the super well-known (Amityville Horror) to the super obscure, which means many of the famous cases they worked on became movies years ago independent of them. 2013’s The Conjuring was the first to actually turn them into the stars.
It couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The always-cyclical horror genre had been on a decade-long run of torture porn, slasher remakes, and found footage flicks. It was time for something old to make a comeback, and Wan’s own Insidious had already successfully tested the waters for a potential new wave of haunted house movies.
Still, The Conjuring seemed to take the world by surprise, registering as one of the first horror movies in the RottenTomatoes era to be both a box office hit and Certified Fresh. As Julianne said in her review, “When the credits rolled, I realized my heart was pounding, my arms were shaking, and I was giddy with excitement. I had gasped and jumped, but I didn’t feel like the scares were cheap or easy.”
With praise like that, it’s not hard to see why The Conjuring finished its run as one of the highest-grossing R-Rated horror movies of all time. It has since been eclipsed on that chart by Halloween, Get Out, and It, but those films owe at least a small debt to The Conjuring for re-establishing in Hollywood how much money could be made in the R-Rated horror arena.
However, while Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson brought immense warmth to the Warrens – more than enough to make them compelling central figures – the horror audience has been trained by years of excessive franchising to expect the villain to be the star. Ed and Lorraine are great, sure, but give us more of that scary doll in the film’s prologue. Give us Annabelle!
Then New Line made an Annabelle movie. It…wasn’t very good.
While a critical failure, Annabelle still made money and it established the franchise template: the main Conjuring films turn a Warren case file into an effective haunted house story that is as much about the family suffering the haunting as it is about the Warrens. However, The Conjuring films also live to set-up spin-offs about some of the spooky items in the Warren’s Occult Museum.
It’s a tricky balance, one which The Conjuring 2 didn’t pull off as well. However, as a universe-building formula, it has worked beautifully. The first Conjuring gave us Annabelle, which has since turned into a trilogy; Conjuring 2 gave us The Nun and tried like hell to also give us The Crooked Man, a project which has been stuck in development hell since 2017.
Aesthetically and tonally, the spin-offs follow Wan’s lead. As he told NYTimes, “I kind of joke that creating franchises is a lot like directing pilot episodes of TV series. You set a look and feel and kind of pass it on.” That means those who follow are supposed to prioritize mood and character over jump scares. Get the first two right and the jump scares will work better because they’ll feel earned.
Most of the directors after Wan have stayed within that house style, with Annabelle: Creation’s David Sandberg proving to be the best at it. Only The Nun’s Corin Hardy departed in any meaningful way, adopting far more of a gothic, hammer horror feel with an endless series of jump scares. That makes his film easily the most WTF and tonally schizophrenic work in the Universe. If nothing else, this ensures The Nun is one of the most memorable entries in the Universe. It’s just so batshit crazy – at-times knowingly schlocky, at other times not so much.
The Curse of La Llorona, as I argued in my review yesterday, is more of a return to The Conjuring form, lifting the familiar tropes of a haunting movie and dropping them into a culture (Hispanic) we don’t often see in this genre. While certainly watchable, La Llorona is the franchise’s least remarkable entry since Annabelle. It’s less notable as a film and more notable for what it represents: it’s the first Conjuring Universe entry which is itself a spin-off of a spin-off. Rather than being tied to either Conjuring or Conjuring 2, La Llorona is actually only connected because it shares a side-character with the first Annabelle.
When the franchise has reached “spin-off of a spin-off” territory, it certainly feels like we’re overdue for another proper Conjuring film. It has been too long since we’ve seen Farmiga and Wilson as the Warrens. Luckily, this summer they’ll each feature as side characters in Annabelle Comes Home (due 6/28), which will serve as a bit of a Conjuring side adventure since the plot sees that old, scary doll stalking the Warrens’ daughter and her friends.
Farmiga and Wilson will reclaim center stage in next year’s The Conjuring 3 (due 9/11/20), which is being produced by James Wan but directed by La Llorona’s Michael Chavez. According to Wan, the story is again pulled from the Warren case files and will be set in the 1980s, “It’s this guy who was on trial for committing a murder. I think it’s the first time in America’s history where the defendant used possessions as a reason.”
Looking back on all of this now, the first Conjuring still stands as the best thing in the Universe. How would I rank the rest of them?
1. The Conjuring
The Case: Perron family haunting in 1971 Rhode Island
2. The Conjuring 2
The Case: Enfield haunting in 1977 Britain
3. Annabelle: Creation
The Case: According to historyvshollywood.com, “The actual Annabelle from the Warrens Occult Museum was purchased at a hobby store in 1970 by a mother who gave it to her 28-year-old daughter, Donna, as a birthday present. Donna was allegedly told by a medium that the spirit of the child had at some point entered the doll and that the tragic accident that claimed the child’s life had happened close to Donna’s apartment building.” Annabelle: Creation is Gary Dauberman’s loose attempt to fill in the backstory of how the child’s spirit ended up in the doll.
4. The Nun
The Case: No case. Lorraine Warren claimed her home had been haunted by a spectral entity which appeared to her as a “swirling tornado vortex with this hooded figure in there.” In preparing The Conjuring 2, James Wan wanted to incorporate this into the story but he didn’t know how.
“And so, it kind of took me a while to cement in my head what this vision was. And it came across eventually in a very organic way,” Wan said. “Because it is a demonic vision that haunts her, that only attacks her, I wanted something that would attack her faith. Something that would threaten the safety of her husband. And so that was eventually how the idea of this very iconographic image of a holy icon cemented in my head.”
When it came time for The Nun to get her own movie, screenwriter Gary Dauberman based the story on the movie and novel The Name of the Rose. There, a friar and his apprentice investigate the mysterious death of a famous monk in Northern Italy. Dauberman cut and paste “nun” for “monk” and then let his imagination run wild.
And that’s how the movie opens!
5. The Curse of La Llorona
The Case: The Mexican folklore legend of “the weeping woman”
The Case: Most of Annabelle’s actual known backstory is already depicted in The Conjuring. So, this prequel is a largely fictional attempt to answer the following question: who owned the doll before it ended up with the nursing students Donna and Angie we meet in The Conjuring?