When looking into a movie landscape that is dominated by Disney properties, one thing becomes very clear: this shared universe stuff is extremely hard work. Both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars one are still going strong, even if Star Wars still mostly follows one story thread. The box office graveyard is full of attempts by other studios to mimic this success: the DCEU, Universal’s ill-fated Dark Universe, the Monsterverse, none of which have hit the same critical and commercial heights. There is only one more successful shared universe out there at the moment, and that’s The Conjuring Universe.
When I say success, I mean that relatively. No film has made a billion dollars, but all of them have made massive bank when we take their small, for Hollywood, budgets. The architect of this success is Australian director, James Wan – beginning his career as part of creative partnership with Upgrade director Leigh Whannell, the duo has defined what mainstream horror is ever since their debut, Saw, hit theatres 15 years ago.
Wan’s legacy in the horror genre is a typically questionable one, the question being whether he has killed the genre or improved it. It’s an interesting question, as his influence is not in question as much as his impact. Saw, along with Eli Roth’s Hostel, is credited with creating the torture porn sub-genre, where the gory destruction of the human body is more important than, say, plot and characterisation. Think of it as the nu-metal of horror, except Saw isn’t that gory. It’s much closer to Seven than Cannibal Holocaust, with Repo: The Genetic Opera director, Darren Lyn Boussman being the guy who took the franchise to more bloody and goofy territory.
Despite Saw making a huge red splash, Wan and Whannell have defined their future careers by going in the other direction. I like Saw, but it is both filmmakers’ least interesting movie. From low-budget splatter to a creak on the stairs, the duo went on to create the Insidious franchise, and it helps to think of Insidious as a proof of concept for the Conjuring Universe. Here, Wan expertly crafts a film full of scares, dread, with solid writing and a great story. The sequel may look better, but it’s rules are less defined leading to slight confusion about what exactly is going on.
Clearly, Wan saw his creative future in crafting ghost/demon stories with an extremely Catholic point of view. The Conjuring is his most essential film within the horror genre. While he’s made billions with the fun distractions of Aquaman and Furious 7, The Conjuring is his most complete film. Much like Saw, both the Insidious franchise and The Conjuring are indirectly responsible for the existence of some really awful horror movies, some blatant low-effort rip-offs, and some of them within their own franchises – the reason that, for many horror fans, these films are the worst iteration of the genre. I disagree – after all, The Blair Witch Project isn’t responsible for garbage like Devil’s Due, despite their shared genres.
The slew of terrible jump-scareathons is less a problem caused by the Conjuring Universe’s existence as it is when the money men saw the box office receipts. A good mainstream example of this is the Guardians of the Galaxy effect. Marvel took a huge creative risk by making a space caper with a motley crew of anti-heroes and did so by hiring James Gunn to put his own unique stamp on the material. The Guardians are now mainstays of pop culture, so much so that the DCEU decided to stop ruching the Justice League together and instead try and turn Suicide Squad into their very own A-Holes. It was a disaster, mainly because David Ayer and Warner Bros took all of the style and visual flair, buried it in concrete and didn’t even remember that good movies need a good story and compelling characters. Is Suicide Squad James Gunn’s fault? No-one would be so cruel as to lump him with that movie.
Now we know the impact of these films, lets take a closer look at them. As I re-watched them and watched The Curse of La Llaorna for the first and only time, a creative choice became very clear. In The Conjuring Universe, God, despite his soaring in-universe reputation, is not the most powerful force for good. That title goes to the couple that keep these disparate tied films together: Ed and Lorraine Warren. The rule is very simple: if you’re watching a main Conjuring film, evil will lose, and the Warrens will emerge victorious. If you’re watch an Annabelle film, or The Nun, evil wins.
The Annabelle trilogy proves just that. Annabelle is like the franchise mascot: a creepy doll which a demon uses to fuck with people to get their souls and to attract other souls that have passed over. Annabelle is real, though she is actually a Raggedy Anne doll, and she is our introduction to the Conjuring Universe. We come in at the end of her story when the Warrens take her to their home room of horrors. Again, this little museum of the occult is real, as is the glass container that houses Annabelle.
The trilogy is in a strange order, as the first film is a prequel to The Conjuring, the second is a prequel to the first, and the third is a sequel to The Conjuring. In all but one film, Annabelle, or the demon controlling her, gets its prize: a lot of death and some souls. It’s only in Annabelle Comes Home that the demon is thwarted, mainly due to the Warren’s daughter, who is a psychic like her mother. The Warrens are the cornerstone of the franchise and the fact that they are real people helps create a more immersive experience, the filmmakers committed to bringing the tenuous real life stories to the big screen despite their questionable basis in truth. Sure, both of the cases that are investigated on the main Conjuring films are real, but both the Warrens involvement, and the veracity of the paranormal events has either been exaggerated in some cases and completely made up in others.
Finally, are these films any good? The truth is that it varies. Just because every film makes a ton of money does not coincide with their quality. The main Conjuring films are great, both are anchored by a sympathetic family under attack, some quality scares, and the welcome presence of the brilliant Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and their warm, easy chemistry.
The Annabelle films are more of a mixed bag. The first film set up an unfortunate template for the Conjuring spin-offs; the aim was to take advantage of the popularity of a secondary monster, Annabelle from the first Conjuring, Valek, the demon nun from the second, rush them both into production with weak scripts, weaker characters, and have every scare the same stupid jump-shock over and over again. Annabelle and The Nun are the worst films in the series. The Nun is completely incoherent and really fucking dumb, and the less said about La Llorona the better. They couldn’t even get a second cousin of the Warren’s to tie that in.
Which leaves the Annabelle sequels: Annabelle: Creation and Annabelle Come Home. While both films are guilty of the same old jump scare formula, they benefit greatly from having a director with a clear idea of what he wants to do. Lights Out and Shazam direct David Sandberg has a talent for a great setpiece, whether in the horror or superhero genre, and his work in Annabelle: Creation is second only to James Wan himself. Annabelle Come Home is a different prospect, partly thanks to the Warrens presence (though Ed and Lorraine’s appearances barely clock in at ten minutes) as it puts a Conjuring Universe spin on an old goofy horror classic: the babysitter in peril.
When it comes to the mainstream part of any genre, it’s not likely that the type of film that is liked the most, the one that rakes in the most cash, is also the objective best one (unless it’s the Dark Knight). I’m not saying that The Conjuring Universe is the pinnacle of horror for this decade – in my view, the best horror movies (apart from It Chapter One and Two) are the ones on the fringes – but the franchise deserves its place in the genre, even if it’s patchy, overly preachy, and over-reliant on certain tropes. Hey, at the end of the day, I’d rather watch this than Saw.
Are you in the horror mood now it’s spook season at last? Check out the rest of our horror movie writing right here under the Halloween Season tag!
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Tampa Bay Times)