Would my horror journalist accreditation be revoked if I didn’t update my ranking of Warner Brothers’ Conjuring Universe (“Conjurverse,” to me) with every new canonical release? Of course not (because that’s not a real thing), but why not dissect totem dolls, sisterly sinners, and more possessions than Ash Williams could shake his boomstick at. What started with James Wan’s The Conjuring currently spans eight horrific entries with the promise of more to come. Missteps aside, Warner Brothers is fighting the good fight for mainstream horror releases, and under Wan’s guidance (to varying degrees), we’ve been proficiently spoiled. Plain and simple. I’m sure you’ll all agree with me and not a soul will voice any differing opinions on the matter!
Hold up. Before we get all list-happy, mind if I raise a quick point about the “Conjurverse” and horror in general? I’ll be brief—Scout’s honor.
Every year, without fail, some outlet asks readers, “Is Horror Dead?” or “Is Horror Back From The Dead?” Neither, you irreconcilably misguided dolts. Horror is, was, and will be fine. Warner Brothers couldn’t mirror Marvel’s cinematic universe formula if otherwise. The Conjuring dates back to 2013, and each year since (with some gaps) has proven that horror thrives and survives. Warner Brothers wouldn’t be acting so enthusiastically or extravagantly if horror was dead (a reported Crooked Man movie is still on the way). Likewise, the studio can also take no credit for “reviving” horror since interest in such content reaches much farther than James Wan’s grasp. The “Conjurverse” is proof that horror’s doing just fine (a $24 million domestic opening for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It in pandemic conditions), which we should all remember when we’re back to square uno with this argument.
Sorry. I feel better now—enough beating around the proverbial burning bush.
Let’s rank the “Conjurverse,” shall we?
John R. Leonetti’s Annabelle is, without argument, the “Conjurverse’s” worst and only failure. By a moonshot. It’s a late-50s sitcom episode with one psychopathic guest star, wholly content on copying Wan’s previous cinematic signatures blow-for-blow. The “half-demon-face-behind-you” jolt in Insidious. The Conjuring‘s unsettling vibrations. Leonetti has absolutely nothing to say in terms of stylistic horror that hasn’t been better established by countless other genre visionaries and Annabelle suffers mightily from this days-old stench. Spooky doll, spooky poses. We get it.
What’s worse, there’s a single scene that teases an inkling of something more competent. Annabelle’s spiritually conjoined tar-skinned demon lurking, chasing, then getting in the camera’s face. At that moment, Annabelle seems salvageable – but that’s all it is. A fleeting moment. The rest is wooden acting (sans Alfre Woodard’s B-grade, ill-fitting bookstore owner), Rosemary’s Baby inspirations, and a deflating lack of originality that so fumbles what we thought to be unstoppable momentum coming off of James Wan’s The Conjuring behemoth.
7) The Curse Of La Llorona
Michael Chaves’ introduction into the Conjurverse is…unfortunate. I’ve written over and over again how Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis’s ghost story fails the Latin American mythos of “The Weeping Woman,” and how that might not even be the script’s fault. Should whispers be true, The Curse Of La Llorona wasn’t even supposed to be a La Llorona movie until late-game choices pulled some backend strings to insert more cultural resonance into the Conjurverse. Frankly? I wouldn’t be shocked. That’s precisely how this lacking Linda Cardellini thriller presents itself.
As for Chaves’ direction, the atmosphere and structural integrity of the horror shown represents a filmmaker trying to duplicate James Wan’s talents. Where movies like The Nun and Annabelle Comes Home feel more indebted to their helmers, The Curse Of La Llorona is very much Chaves reminding us why Wan is indeed the master of this Conjurverse domain. It’s disappointingly generic, cheapens La Llorona’s inclusion, and exists without the oomph that comes with Conjurverse entanglement. There’s a reason I’ll continue to recommend La Llorona on Shudder over The Curse Of La Llorona for eternity—and why cultural representation shouldn’t be a last-minute gimmick with an Americanization washover.
6) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
It’s impossible to view The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It apart from James Wan’s first two entries because, despite the lack of numerical subtitle, this is the (fake) Warrens’ supposed trilogy ender. Michael Chaves returns to tackle the infamous defense of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, as an American courtroom first hears the words “Demonic Possession” as a plea of innocence. It’s a story that blends procedural investigative drama with satanic totems and more religious blasphemy but lacks Wan’s guidance. Chaves is still a far cry from Wan’s mastery of horror storytelling, and I still don’t know who he is as a director beyond a cog in the Conjurverse franchise.
As for the more prominent beats, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are why I’m still vaguely positive overall on The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. Do we believe the hunky and ripped Wilson can’t jog a few feet without collapsing? Not really. Do I think Chaves works well within the relationship evolution of Ed and Lorraine, especially as an emasculated Ed has to hold Lorraine’s purse as she takes point on their most dangerous encounters? Absolutely. Scares become repetitive as Chaves reworks the same fundamental “lights out, demon jumps” jolts, but Horror Mom and Horror Dad endure, even in the sappiest glimpses where Chaves tugs on our heartstrings. Liberties are taken with the real-life account versus cinematic narrative, no doubt, but we’re here ultimately for the Warrens, and with that in mind, I’m content.
5) The Nun
As Marvel movies have begun toying with varied thematic inspirations (70s political thrillers, heist laughers, hard sci-fi), Corin Hardy’s “Conjurverse” detour gets more into monster-mash aesthetics versus atmospheric dread. “The Nun”/Valak (Bonnie Aarons) returns, but Gary Dauberman’s script also brings zombified abbesses with rotting facial wounds, blood demons from Hell, ghost boys – it’s a bit kitchen sink in terms of malevolent villains, which hits upon an alternate “Conjurverse” tone that breathes fresh air. Sometimes. More than it doesn’t?
Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre is gifted Romanian architectural gold by The Nun’s locations team and not an ounce of Gothic castle broodiness is left unused. It doesn’t always translate to unmanageable scares, but with Hardy’s guidance, foggy graveyards and empty convent hallways make for a *beautiful* period throwback. Ghouls and hanging corpses earn their afterlife keep, even though Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga struggle to find stand-out potential given Dauberman’s sometimes messy screenplay. Flat out, there’s fun to be had with The Nun. Keyword: “fun.” The Conjuring grabs you by the throat and squeezes until blue becomes your natural skin tint. The Nun’s here for a good time – knights, serpents, and the sweet blood of Jesus Christ?
4) Annabelle Comes Home
When I say Annabelle Comes Home is reminiscent of a Halloween Horror Nights maze, that’s meant to praise the fun-filled diversion that is Gary Dauberman’s directorial debut. The Warrens have an entire room filled with artifacts tied to possessions, demons, and other unsightly nightmare creatures. Why not unleash a few and play the hits? A ferryman, a werewolf, and so many bumps in the night take horror’s formulaic babysitter setup and nails all the notes tentpole Conjuring movies don’t have time to entertain.
Annabelle Comes Home is primarily an homage to 80s creepshow chaos, but credit Mckenna Grace as Judy Warren with a meaty performance that digs into life, death, and knowing an in-between exists. For a solid three-quarters or more, we’re engaged by “The Black Shuck” or any number of villains now roaming the Warrens property. For the moments outside a rather relentless assault of freakshow ferocity? Grace proves herself such a talented little darling of the horror genre and furthers what could, and should, be a much more forgettable roll of the underworld’s dice. Curiosity kills the cat, or in this case, summons forth a small army of the Conjurverse’s not-yet-seen monsters, with an emphasis on popcorn thrills on a Friday night.
3) Annabelle: Creation
David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation is mean, creepy-doll-but-scary-this-time redemption. Lights Out proved that Sandberg could scare the bejesus out of audiences, and Annabelle: Creation confirmed just that. Red flags and false childhood confidence may be abound, but that doesn’t mean Sandberg can’t muster up some wicked telekinesis bone snaps, or scarecrow anthropomorphic attacks, or a paralyzing antique pop-gun bit. Horror jolts overpower a more mundane farmhouse paranormal story, but when Sandberg manipulates darkness for a scream – watch out.
Credit pre-teen Lulu Wilson with stealing Annabelle: Creation. The very-much-arrived actress earns her right to play protagonist after assuming antagonistic duties in Ouija: Origin Of Evil. Wilson’s wide-eyed, scampery nature feeds right into Sandberg’s hand, promoting gory reveals and morbid curiosity through pint-sized eyes. A toymaker’s folly, an orphanage bus doomed, and Sandberg’s bloodcurdling manipulations of safety make for one white-knuckled rise to relevance for the once shamed doll. Sandberg’s prequel is…*whips on sunglasses*…no lifeless dummy.
2) The Conjuring 2
The Conjuring 2 isn’t just “horror sequel” good, it’s damn-near almost The Conjuring level good. Welcome, Crooked Man! Hello, Enfield! James Wan not only delivers a successful horror sequel – hard enough as-is – but services standalone sturdiness never dependent on fan-pandering. A grander scope. Subversions of genre norms. Teeth-chattering chills and unspeakable terror. The Conjuring restricts possession punishment to a more contained home-away country setting, but Wan takes to London streets like a bat spat out by Satan’s puckered lips in terms of his mastery of horror in *any* setting. Wan’s showcased talents launch him into an upper-echelon of today’s working directors (horror or not) – and we haven’t even gotten to The Conjuring yet.
The Conjuring 2 is a daring feast for all senses, tastes, and expectancies. Creature fans benefit from the Crooked Man, who’s birthed from a spinning child’s moving picture with colorful hat and menace like a motherjumper. Enjoy your horror day or night? Wan employs frights of both the light and dark, disproving any notion that horror’s most dreadful enchantments only manifest under the moon’s glow. Janet’s (Madison Wolfe) possession, Lorraine’s (Vera Farmiga) encounter with “The Nun” painting, countless exorcism beats drenched in miraculous damnation – The Conjuring 2 deserves to be in sequel conversations with Evil Dead II, Aliens and [REC 2]. There’s your fucking hot take, internet. What now.
1) The Conjuring
Do you remember your first The Conjuring watch? I do. Opening weekend, a packed house at midnight. Me sitting next to two friends, both horror fans. My heart was racing for the entirety of Lorraine and Ed Warren’s first James Wan-ified cinematic investigation, as my appreciation for horror was redefined by one of the most viscerally chilling, monstrously moody, atmospherically gifted haunts of my moviegoing career. But even better? Having to detail some of the best scares post-viewing because one accompanying guest watched half the film through crossed fingers. The same friend who’d slug beers with me at the bar, return to one of our pads, and then select a 2AM midnight flick to sober up to (lol jk, we drank and geeked out more).
Whatever preconceived notions and “torture porn” boxes James Wan might have been painted into at one time, The Conjuring exemplifies every facet of his multi-layered filmmaking arsenal. Maybe Insidious wasn’t enough proof for you? Here comes Wan with this 5-star record breaker that masterfully manipulates shadows and silence. Keeps us nervously awake with simple claps. Destroys every fiber of calmness with flipping chairs, hide-and-go-seek demons, and unfathomable presence. Patrick Wilson. Vera Farmiga. Ron Livingston. Lili Taylor. Joey King. There’s a reason Warner Brothers invested so much money and faith into a Conjuring universe. No fluke. The Conjuring is what every paranormal exorcism flick created since dreams of growing up to be.
It’s…*back with the sunglasses*…Wan in a million.