The Conjuring Cinematic Universe

Ever since The Avengers became a box-office sensation, other studios have been attempting to replicate Marvel’s success… with little to show for their efforts. Warner Bros has had mixed results with some individual movies, but their shared universe has turned out to be quite messy. Universal, recognizing that they already had a template for this sort of thing with their classic monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s, attempted their infamous Dark Universe, an endeavor that couldn’t survive the initial installment. But there has been one successful cinematic universe that quietly slipped through the cracks, and that’s the Conjuring Cinematic Universe.

James Wan’s The Conjuring kicked things off in 2013. A sequel followed, then a couple of spinoffs, more sequels, sequels to spinoffs, and soon we found that another cinematic universe was flourishing. While there are some worldbuilding aspects of the series that lend itself to the usual web of interconnectivity needed to drive such an enterprise, the Conjuring Cinematic Universe has perhaps succeeded because the connections are so light, the stories so episodic, that each entry generally works as a standalone.

For my part, while I really quite enjoyed the first Conjuring movie, I’ve basically failed to keep up with all the sequels and spinoffs. After well over a decade of this Six Weeks of Halloween marathoning of horror movies, it’s easy for me to go down obscure rabbit holes and explore movies no one has heard of before. Hell, last week’s theme was literally about “Forgotten” Giallo movies. I also watched a couple of Silent Movies last week, and we all know how popular those are these days. As such, it’s nice to get back to the mainstream and watch some movies that people might actually be familiar with.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 3 – The Conjuring Cinematic Universe

The Conjuring 2 – The husband and wife paranormal investigatory team of Lorraine and Ed Warren check out the Amityville home, meet a deranged demon nun who gives Lorraine a vision of Ed’s death, then travel to London to help a single mother whose family is dealing with a malevolent haunting.

It’s not doing anything that hasn’t already been established in the first movie, but James Wan’s slick, formalist style suits the genre well. The way he cuts (i.e. not often), blocks and composes shots, and moves the camera is all expertly done. In particular, the way he’s able to hold on shots and keep them moving in single takes works to heighten tension. Quick cuts and shaky cam can be deployed well, but for a while, they were dominant in the genre and it’s nice to see someone who knows how to shoot a tense scene.

The Warrens in The Conjuring 2

I know a lot of people think the Warrens are real-life charlatans and hate that they get valorized in this way, but I love their cinematic counterparts. Obviously these are not true stories we’re watching, but the Warrens are a warm, comforting screen presence in an often cruel and nihilistic genre. It’s just really nice to see a married couple who aren’t incredibly dysfunctional; who don’t fall apart at the slightest provocation.

Clocking in at 134 minutes, the movie is far too long, and the Warrens don’t meet the family they’re helping until around the 1 hour mark (which is pretty late). For a large proportion of the running time, the ghost in question seems to be rather routine and underwhelming (I mean, sure, if I were part of the family I’d be pretty whelmed, but as a horror movie, it seems mundane). The scares are mostly formulaic and even though Wan is great in execution, it’s difficult to sustain that feeling over such a long runtime. I still really enjoyed this movie. While not as good as the original, it’s easy to see why this has grown into a franchise. **1/2

Annabelle: Creation – Years after the tragic death of their daughter, a doll maker and his wife take in a nun and several orphans. Naturally, one of the orphans decides to explore the “forbidden” room in the house, thereby unleashing Annabelle, the possessed doll.

Annabelle: Creation

This prequel to Annabelle seems to be the best regarded of the three movies focused on the titular doll, so I started here. It turns out that the ending would probably be more effective if you’ve seen the first movie, but otherwise this works well enough as a standalone. Like Wan’s entries in the Conjuring Cinematic Universe, this is slick and has some well executed sequences that are enhanced with camerawork, lighting, and other technical work. But there’s nothing new here, and while the filmmaking is solid, it’s not enough to overcome the derivative formula in play. You’ve got the titular creepy doll, a spooky well, a menacing scarecrow, and a CGI demon that the filmmakers somehow think is creepier than the genuinely unsettling doll.

It’s reasonably well executed, and director David F. Sandberg has chops, but the whole enterprise comes off as diminishing returns. Look, this is the way of genre films and especially genre sequels, so if you’re a fan of this sort of thing, you will get something out of it. I enjoyed it well enough, but here I am one day later and I’m having trouble remembering what went on in the movie. I’m being pretty hard on this, but your mileage may vary. **

The Curse of La Llorona – A single mother and social worker takes on a case of two missing children. When they turn up dead, she starts to fear for her own children.

Have I already mentioned diminishing returns? Because this feels a bit like a 5th generation analog copy of a decent enough movie (for all the youths reading this, analog copies lose quality with each copy). Director Michael Chaves is a step down from Wan and maybe even Sandberg, though he does competent work. There are some technically proficient shots in the film, but it all comes out to be profoundly mediocre. For a certain type of person, this sort of mediocrity is the worst thing a movie can be. It’s derivative and formulaic, nothing new at all, and it is surely sanitizing the cultural significance and historical relevance of La Llorona (I’m no expert, but I’m guessing we only see the faintest sketch of the legend in this movie). The script also requires some of the characters to act stupidly so that the rest of the movie can happen.

The Curse of La Llorona

That said, Linda Cardellini as the mom and Raymond Cruz as the scary (former) priest are doing good work and, for me at least, saved this movie from being a total waste. It’s definitely not something I’d recommend, but despite what the mediocrity haters think, I don’t mind a mediocre movie from time to time. **

That last movie was directed by Michael Chaves, who would go on to make The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, released earlier this year. I watched it when it came out, so I’m not doing a full review here, but I’d rank it below the other two Conjuring movies, but far above La Llorona.

2 thoughts on “The Conjuring Cinematic Universe”

  1. I’m not sure I’d consider myself a full-blown fan of the Conjuring-verse. The first Conjuring was put together nicely but I found the sequel overlong. The third Annabelle was surprisingly fun. I thought Conjuring 3, the first Annabelle, and La Llorona were all pretty much trash though. Haven’t watched The Nun or the Annabelle prequel. Nevertheless, I am glad this enterprise exist. It’s cool that the last decade got a big horror franchise to call its own and that the movies, even the bad ones, are indebted to an older breed of classy ghost story that I can appreciate.

    1. I think I enjoy the Conjuring movies more than you, but I largely agree. It’s a shame that the spinoffs aren’t, you know, better, but as with the Saw series and torture porn, it’s interesting to observe the cycles that the horror genre goes through, even if a given cycle might not be my jam…

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