Ranking The Conjuring Universe

I tend to drag my feet on any long-running series that spawns its own spinoffs and shared universes. Interconnectivity can be cool (and hugely profitable) but it can also be straight up obnoxious. “ALL OF THIS IS CONNECTED,” “THESE MOVIES TAKE PLACE IN THE SAME UNIVERSE.” Bro. We get it.

Marvel Studios is the only one to successfully launch a cinematic universe, which is why other studios keep trying and failing. Warner Bros. flubbed its Justice League mashup; it’s a miracle I got around to watching Aquaman, and I have yet to see Shazam or WW1984. The Fast & Furious franchise, though mega successful at the box office, bred a spinoff in Hobbs & Shaw, but you cannot pay me enough money to watch that movie. Don’t get me started on what Disney’s doing to plow through our nostalgia with its live-action adaptations. And remember Universal’s planned Dark Universe? Ouch.

The only other cinematic universe that can dare hold a candle to the MCU is The Conjuring Universe. As horror movies, they have a built-in failsafe. They’re cheaper to produce than any one superhero movie. So if any of the Conjuring Universe movies “flop,” the losses are small and the studio can (and most assuredly will) try again with the next movie.

These movies vary in quality, but they’re all commercially successful and that’s all that matters in the studio game. Having seen and sunk my teeth into the latest installment, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, I decided to finally give the whole Conjuring Universe a go. (I hadn’t seen two of the Annabelle movies, The Nun, or The Curse of La Llorona). And you know what? It’s the most fun I’ve had this summer so far, and an excellent pregame to what feels like will be a summer of horror.

All caught up, here’s where I rank The Conjuring Universe:

1. The Conjuring

It’s easier starting from the top because we all know which is the best of these movies, like asking what’s the best Jurassic Park movie. (Duh.) The first Conjuring is the only one so far to interrupt my sleep cycle. It had been a long time since a horror movie kept me up at night. Others I can recall off the bat are The Ring (you know the scene) and The Grudge when a character gets dragged from under the covers OF HER OWN BED. In The Conjuring, that shot of Bathsheba hovering over Carolyn Perron fucked me up. The witch is scary on her own and now you give me a phobia of opening my eyes?????

The Conjuring is the movie James Wan was born to make. This is him at his most devious and diabolical, a fiendish showcase for him as master puppeteer. He was limited budget-wise but you never feel those constraints. The movie feels unhinged, even a bit dangerous with its sheer malevolent force behind the things that go bump in the night. Something as innocent as hands clapping, or a child asking to play a game has never sounded so bloodcurdling. That shot of the enveloping darkness descending on poor little Judy Warren mounts so much dread, and the ending exorcism feels properly forbidden and unnerving like something we should not be seeing—or can only see through the covers of our hands.

It’s weird being a horror fan while also being the biggest scaredy cat, but I wholeheartedly love The Conjuring. Just, you know, with the lights on.

2. Annabelle Comes Home

The Conjuring covers the straight up horror side of what makes these movies so appealing and Annabelle Comes Home taps into the fun side. Some of these stories get self-serious exploring the deeper and darker origins of its ghouls, but Annabelle Comes Home says fuck it, we’ve got a haunted house story right here in the Warren house. It’s the haunted carnival funhouse version of the whole series.

We’ve got a psychic child, a babysitter, her rule-breaking friend, and a guitar-serenading crush like every stock type you’ve seen in an ‘80s horror movie, except this one is magnificently cast with capable young stars. Judy Warren is played by The Haunting of Hill House’s Mckenna Grace who’s already so formidable as an actor (if they ever remake Beetlejuice, THIS is our Lydia Deetz); Madison Iseman is innocent and charming as babysitter Mary Ellen, and could very well be Laurie Strode’s BFF; and Katie Sarife as Daniela is the whole reason they’re in this mess, but conveys a surprising amount of heart and empathy for her character. Even a minor role like Bob gets to be endearing as Mary Ellen’s big crush. The script initially seems like an extended preview of the Conjuring spinoffs to come, yet the movie answers something definitive about the museum and the universe as a whole: “All of the evil in here reminds me of the good that’s out there.”

This isn’t to say Annabelle Comes Home coasts on the scares. It favors stillness in a way that the other spinoffs neglect in favor of more jump scares. Like James Wan, director Gary Dauberman understands that once the scare happens, the thrill is over. The game is in the buildup, and Dauberman crafts some excellent mazes in the Warren home. There’s a sequence that mines so much dread out of a pair of coins, and a bit involving Judy’s nightlight that’s madly inventive. There are some recurring scares from previous movies that get their own mini-sequel here, and Dauberman’s tact as director feels like he’s continuing and honoring those visual motifs, not aping them. Annabelle Comes Home is insanely rewatchable in this regard. The third chapters of any story run the risk of fizzling out. Annabelle Comes Home proves you don’t need to go bigger or darker to take a franchise in a new direction. Sometimes, you just need to let loose.

3. Annabelle: Creation

I for one did not expect to like the Annabelle movies so much. This sequel to the 2014 spinoff is the definitive origin story. On paper, the movie reads like overkill. What made Annabelle so creepy and mysterious an object was exactly that; you knew so little of what the doll was and where it came from (and where it’s been) that to unravel those mysteries seemed like killing her own appeal. And yet, Annabelle: Creation proves what these spinoffs can do when they’re able to stand on their own.

David F. Sandberg takes the horror adage, “what you don’t see is always scarier” and makes it his bible. We see little of the Annabelle doll physically moving (or of the vicious demon behind her) and wields so much terror out of our imagination. Sandberg will throw a sheet over Annabelle, then we see the sheet upright and moving like a bad guy in Scooby Doo. We don’t see Annabelle’s head turn, but Sandberg will cut away briefly and then show her staring right at us, or we’ll spot her figure in the narrow view of the top bunk… and the gnarled fingers of something that brought her there. If you love bunk beds, Annabelle: Creation will introduce a new phobia for you.

Annabelle’s creation myth is a hayride to hell and back, and a PROPER horror fable. Poor disabled Janice gets put through the wringer, but hey, the horror genre has always been not nice to children. (Remember that kid on the raft in JAWS?) Annabelle: Creation is right up there with the first Conjuring in terms of scares, and secures Annabelle’s place as a cinematic horror icon on top of it.

4. The Conjuring 2

This is where I’m gonna get critical of these movies. For me, Conjuring 2 is 70% of a great sequel. About half of its scares work for me. I think Valak is a worthy addition to the Warren’s library of ghouls (that scene with the painting is 👌), but I do not care for the Crooked Man. Old man Bill’s sequences with Janet are legitimately scary, but his sudden scream in the tent at little Billy is a cheap payoff, and the scene in the washer with Peggy comes too late for it to feel threatening. Conjuring 2 is too long for its own good. It also feels the need to justify itself as “based on a true story,” and this eats a chunk of the runtime.

The reason I love the twist of the demon nun holding old man Bill hostage (AND being able to block Lorraine’s sight) is because of how ludicrous that sounds. It’s as hokey as saying a house needs an exorcism, or that being haunted is like “stepping on gum.” The need to validate this as real and THIS HAPPENED is what takes me out of the experience because I’m not watching any of this for facts or accuracy. It’s a good marketing tactic for sure, but also makes The Conjuring movies so afraid of the word “fiction.”

James Wan, I feel, is an excellent franchise starter. He’s free from expectation that way. Think the first Saw or Insidious. But then you get to Insidious: Chapter 2 or Conjuring 2 and he knows he has to top himself. In doing so, he bites off more than he can chew. Like the dog-shifting Crooked Man, or dialing up Valak’s intensity when her singular sinister look does all of that without CGI.

For all of my complaints, Conjuring 2 does feel like the movie Wan has been itching to make his whole career – something with a proper budget, the creative freedom to spend it on elaborate sets, and the ability to execute bolder, busier shots. At times, Wan reaches the level of scares he wrought in the first movie. He conjures a load of fright from objects throughout the house, like a chair placed at Janet’s bedside, or a pan shot of a door where we just missed what might’ve opened it. Ed’s long-take interrogation with old man Bill is Wan’s greatest effect in the sequel, where all we see is Ed’s face in the foreground while things shapeshift in the background.

I might be critical of the increased VFX on display, but the tool allows Wan to stage more aggressively with his scares. This bit with the Crooked Man looks exactly like something Wan picked up while working on Furious 7. And despite my gripes with the runtime, I like that we’re endeared to the Hodgson family just like we did the Perrons, and that we get a closer look at Ed and Lorraine’s dynamic. It’s so self-indulgent that we get Patrick Wilson doing an Elvis impersonation, but in that case it’s a solid tradeoff. The Conjuring 2 might not be as terrifying, but it’s still a terrific installment in the series – and miles better than what’s below.

5. Annabelle

I dug the first Annabelle right up until the end when Alfre Woodard’s character Evelyn takes the fall for Mia. In the climax, Mia is manipulated by the demon into giving up her soul. At the last second, Evelyn – a character we do not meet until halfway into the movie – sacrifices herself so Mia and her family can have their happily ever after. The optics alone suck (a black woman dying so a white family can live) but the film goes so far as to justify Evelyn’s suicide, because her backstory is that she lost a child and therefore has… nothing else to live for??? I half-expected her to be part of the cult behind Annabelle. This would’ve made Woodard a villain, but I would 100% get her motivation, whereas I do not understand why Evelyn would die for someone she went shopping with that one time.

It’s a damn shame because Annabelle holds up a lot better than expected. Director John R. Leonetti moves the camera like a devil in disguise, shooting the script like a third Insidious movie he and James Wan never got to make. (Annabelle sports some familiar bloodcurdling violins.) Leonetti gets off to a strong start with a chilling opening murder. He concocts some inspired scares, making the most out of every setting: a suburban home, the narrow hallways of an apartment, a nursery, an elevator, a stairwell. (If you live in an apartment building, good luck taking out the recycling.) But it’s Leonetti’s framing of the demon behind the Annabelle doll that’s most impressive. He shoots the creature like the shark from JAWS, or the unseen visceral entity that drives the Evil Dead movies. Annabelle’s only sin is that it whimpers out at the end. I wanted to love this movie; in fact, I WAS loving this movie. I’ll settle for a like.

6. Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

I was disappointed in The Conjuring 3. The first ten minutes are the scariest in the whole movie. The opening exorcism showed promise in handing over the franchise to a new director. To Michael Chaves’ credit, his direction can be intoxicating. Like Lorraine’s vision sequences, or a finale that has Chaves aspiring toward Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. (Twice now Patrick Wilson has been possessed and tricked into killing his spouse 🤔)

Chaves can be a solid imitator. He pulls some impressive tracking shots through houses similar to James Wan in the first two movies. But since the script moves away from the haunted house setup, the shot rings hollow. What’s the point in establishing geography when we’re not gonna be in the house for the rest of the movie?

The Conjuring 3 is more overtly a detective story. This isn’t radically new for the franchise since Ed and Lorraine’s cases naturally require some digging. The investigation this time around involves a chase for a flesh-and-blood villain and this allows the Warrens to play good cop, bad cop. They sidestep ethical qualms and pick some locks here and there. The tradeoff, sadly, is the scares. Conjuring 3 retains a familiar atmosphere thanks to a deadly string of murders, possessions, and some spooky totems worthy of the Warren museum.

Except the scares are so CGI-heavy that none of it packs the same malevolent punch. It feels shoddy and cheap, like an annoying friend hiding behind the furniture to scare you but you can hear them chuckling. The master occultist may be no Bathsheba, but her look as a haunted handmaiden is still effective. Yet the filmmakers feel they need VFX to amplify her menace when her whole aesthetic screams EVIL AGENDA. (Think “what if Severus Snape was a woman?”) Later, when Ed banishes a walking corpse from their home, it’s so overly souped up with CGI that the movie starts to feel like a lazy generic copy of what made the first one so great.

In a behind-the-scenes featurette, Chaves cites David Fincher’s Se7en as inspiration for Conjuring 3. Between The Little Things, Spiral, and Conjuring 3, everybody wanted to remake Se7en this year. That’s not to say Chaves’ preoccupation was misguided, but I do think he’s leaning toward the wrong reference. He sees a mystery thriller, but the Warrens and their paranormal investigating are extensions of The X-Files.

At the very least, Chaves knows that the beating heart of these movies aren’t the ghosts, but the sincere romance between Ed and Lorraine. Their chemistry has solidified into something so sugary sweet by this third installment that if the writers ever came up with a cheating spouse subplot, these movies would be DONE. As a Conjuring movie, The Devil Made Me Do It is subpar. As a chapter in the Ed and Lorraine love book, it’s the sweetest one yet. How many more movies ‘til we see them raw-dog each other? 👀

7. The Nun

The Nun spinoff is what happens when you’re too eager to replicate a success. You think that exposition is the same thing as patience, that an abbey in Romania alone establishes a gothic mood. The Nun wants to be classic Hammer horror, but it settles for an extended prologue to The Conjuring. Director Corin Hardy has all the pieces to make this “the darkest chapter,” but over-relies on jump scares to do this. Valak’s whole deal is that she’s so frightening on her own that all she has to do is tilt her head downward to look like the holiest of all evils. Hardy, though, tries to do too much.

There’s no time to settle in or get a handle on the film’s setting. The abbey is a gargantuan fortress, but it feels like we’re in the same rooms and running down the same infinite hallway. Would it kill them to grab a couple more lanterns to light the scenes? (Too dark can make a viewer sleepy.) Hardy, at least, never shows off his hand with Valak, using her sparingly and crafting some kinetic set pieces in which she makes a grim mockery of the Bible. This is when The Nun eschews a great deal of fun, how it messes with the sacred: the cross, the altar, rosaries, prayer, a statue of the Virgin Mary. Maybe this film would’ve been 1000x scarier in a cathedral full of devout Catholics.

It bums me out because The Nun has a worthy band of protagonists. Taissa Farmiga (Vera Farmiga’s sister) plays the doe-eyed Sister Irene, a nun-in-training with visions of what’s to come; Demian Bichir’s presence gives the material some much needed gravitas; and Jonas Bloquet as the doomed “Frenchie” is the lone comic relief. It’s fun watching them wrestle with this demon of all nuns, but frankly everybody including Valak deserves a better movie. On the next Conjuring Universe binge, you can safely skip The Nun. It won’t kill you, I promise.

8. The Curse of La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona opens with the Mexican folklore brought to vivid life. Unfortunately, those few minutes are the only time the film achieves something close to an atmosphere of dread. Michael Chaves jumps the gun with his star ghoul. La Llorona has PLENTY of screen time in this. If you think La Llorona will jump at you, she most certainly will. By the 2nd or 3rd time this happens in the movie, she ceases to be scary. It’s the cheesy soap opera version of a shared cultural nightmare.

To be fair, Chaves has some solid horror direction. He whips the camera around the house reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s style in Evil Dead. But we already have an heir to Sam Raimi, and his name is Fede Alvarez. What Chaves lacks, I think, is the patience between scares. Room to breathe in any horror movie is essential. We’re alarmed by loud things because we’re allowed to feel the quiet. When things are constantly slamming or lurching toward us, we become numb to the sensation.

Maybe if we had a different heroine the story could’ve fared better. No disrespect to Linda Cardellini a.k.a. Velma, but this should’ve been Patricia Velasquez’s movie, or Raymond Cruz for that matter. (If anyone’s going to defeat the weeping woman, it would be Breaking Bad’s Tuco.) The Curse of La Llorona goes out of its way to connect itself with the Conjuring Universe by bringing in Annabelle’s Father Perez but they read like deleted scenes, almost as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether they wanted this part of the universe.

I can see why Chaves was picked for the latest Conjuring, but I also see why The Devil Made Me Do It ultimately goes astray. Chaves thinks the big scares make great horror films, and that’s half true. The rest is in the buildup, in the tension, the stomach-churning anticipation. Your scares are only as good as your buildup. David F. Sandberg would’ve been my pick for The Conjuring 3, just for the record.

I have so much more to say about The Devil Made Me Do It that I’ll have to save it for a later post. For now, this is where I stand on the Conjuring Universe. These movies, bottom-line, are FUN – a thing that studio tentpoles often lose with bigger budgets or planned spinoffs, resurrected characters, course-correcting timelines, etc. Whatever becomes of the Conjuring Universe, I hope they never lose the funhouse element.

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Fear is a funny thing. When it’s coursing through your veins, the sudden creak of an open door becomes your worst nightmare. You tell yourself it’s nothing. It’s just the wind. But you can’t know for sure. So you go towards it, hoping to prove you were right all along. And slowly, you venture into the unknown, unaware that there are forces at work beyond your control. The Conjuring is one of the rare horror films that actually understands fear and the things we do because of it. So while you may be screaming inside your head, “Don’t do it! The witch is there! She wants you to go into the cellar!” you have to remember that these characters don’t want to believe it as much as they know it might be true. Before we see something, it’s still an unknown. Whether something is truly there all depends on you seeing it for yourself. Unfortunately, the Perron family are never let off the hook. Not only do they experience the horror, they also endure the psychological trauma that follows. “Hey, do you wanna play?” a voice asks, lurking in the dark. Carolyn Perron reaches for a match, desperately trying to prove that nothing’s there. A small fire burns away the shadows. All seems well. Then, a pair of clapping hands comes forth to engulf her in darkness. Fear is such a cruel thing.

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