The Conjuring Universe’s success continues to confound me. Generally, its films range from unwatchable to well-crafted, but obvious homages to better horror films from past decades. And yet, they continue to kill at the box office.
As I see it, a lot of the Conjuring Universe’s success is tied to the same logic used by many modern superhero movies. First is the built-in lore; realistically, the best thing the Conjuring Universe has done isn’t the movies themselves, but its branding as a cinematic universe. Overall, it’s a business triumph rather than a fruitful artistic endeavor. It avoided the pitfalls of the Dark Universe by waiting to officially call itself a cinematic universe until the coming attractions for Annabelle: Creation, not before The Conjuring came out. Now with enough goodwill earned, every non-Conjuring movie in the franchise is about worldbuilding and fitting into the greater timeline. It’s relatively easy to turn a profit on a low-budget horror movie. It’s a cakewalk to turn a profit on a low-budget horror movie with a built-in audience.
The superhero logic extends to the franchise’s character work. Even with demons causing all sorts of havoc, the body count in each film is never as high as you’d think. Ed and Lorraine Warren will live to fight another demon down the road. Good almost always prevails in the end. The focus is never on the paranormal; it’s on our heroes.
Interestingly, each character’s faith is also used as a weapon against the demonic foes. Captain America has his shield, Tony Stark has his blasters, and Ed Warren has his cross. One’s faith is never explored, much less questioned; instead, a character thrusts their cross forward with all their might to battle against the villain (or demon). An openly religious character isn’t a problem — a crisis of faith is often what makes religious horror movies so enticing — but it is interesting to see the franchise reduce all spirituality to the same effect as Captain America punching a baddie in the face. But in a movie landscape dominated by superheroes, maybe that’s the way to survive.
Nevertheless, the Conjuring Universe continues to grow, so here are my rankings of every film in the franchise:
#8: Annabelle (2014)
In retrospect, maybe handing off the second film in this franchise to John R. Leonetti, whose other directorial efforts at the time included Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2, wasn’t such a good idea. If there’s any silver lining, however, it’s that the clout he received from directing this highly successful spin-off most likely led to Wish Upon, one of the best unintentional comedies of the 2010s.
As for Annabelle, it’s a showcase for mainstream horror at its worst: nothing but jump-scare fakeouts and creaky floorboards. It’s a laughable excuse to string together a few unimaginative horror sequences. Or, more accurately, a few moments of quiet that lead to something spooky running into the negative space of the frame for a second and making a loud noise.
Just watch Wish Upon. It’s a much better way to spend 90 minutes.
#7: The Nun (2018)
The Nun is second only to Annabelle in the franchise’s attempts to soullessly expand this world for profit. After seeing Valak the Demonic Nun in The Conjuring 2 along with a quick mention of her in Annabelle: Creation, we know she’ll live (die?) to fight another day, so the only purpose this film has is filling in the blanks, which is…not fun.
The script is also hilariously bad, leading to a few moments of genuine camp, but mostly scenes that will want to make you slap your forehead in disgust. Valak’s powers seem to grow and shrink based on whatever the scene needs; one minute, she’s burying a character and marking the year of their death on a tombstone with her spooky nun powers (what an oddly specific power), and the next she’s wrestling with a helpless character on the ground. Does this movie have any rules?
Another weird choice: why cast Taissa Farmiga in the lead role when her character is seemingly unrelated to Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren? Was it to artificially inflate the number of fan theories surrounding the film and drive interest for the universe at large? Because it kind of plays that way.
*Read the site’s review of The Nun by clicking here.
#6: The Curse of La Llorona (2019)
I really like Linda Cardellini. She’s a highly dependable actress that is normally stuck playing roles like the Pining Wife in Green Book; however, no matter how underwritten the role, she always manages to exude a sense of goodness and decency that few other actresses can match.
Needless to say, she tries her best in The Curse of La Llorona, but she can’t save this clichéd mess of jump scares. You have all the stock characters for a demonic horror movie in play here: the fractured lead woman, kids that make horrible decisions, a deadly spirit who shrieks with the same elongated mouth all horror demons have these days, and the side character who knows all about said deadly spirit and saves the day in the third act.
My advice to you: watch La Llorona — the Guatemalan horror film from Jayro Bustamante that came out the following year — instead. Seeing that film use the La Llorona folklore to explore the Maya genocide puts into context how little The Curse of La Llorona does with its material.
*Read the site’s review of The Curse of La Llorona by clicking here.
#5: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)
The Catholic Avengers™’s third adventure is…fine. The best choice this franchise ever made was choosing Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson for the lead roles. Similar to Cardellini, Wilson possesses a sense of wholesomeness that is undeniably infectious; Farmiga, on the other hand, is the perfect amount of kooky for a woman who has constant premonitions. Both of them look like they’re struggling to prop up this flimsy story.
The best sequence in The Devil Made Me Do It is the prologue, in which the Warrens perform an exorcism on a young boy. It’s one of the better onscreen exorcisms in recent memory. Director Michael Chaves, who took the reins from James Wan for this film, clearly improved after directing The Curse of La Llorona, but overall, this entry still lacks that extra something to make it worthwhile. While I would never call any movie in the Conjuring Universe truly scary, this entry is noticeably lacking in frightening sequences.
And then there’s the problem of running with Arne Cheyenne Johnson’s claims that he was possessed by a demon while killing his landlord and taking them at face value. The “based on a true story” taglines these movies utilize have always been suspect (and that’s probably putting it lightly), but this one is really in poor taste.
*Read the site’s review of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It by clicking here.
#4: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
It was an ingenious move to plant the seed of the Warrens’ artifact room in The Conjuring. Immediately, you want to know more about everything in there. Without question, it’s the best bit of worldbuilding in the franchise. It’s also why Annabelle Comes Home is such a good idea for a movie. Sooner or later, those demons are going to get loose!
The movie never fully rises to those possibilities, but it’s a nice inversion of the haunted house movie. Instead of entering the haunted house, the characters create it. It’s also one of the funnier “we need to fix everything before mom and dad come home” movie setups you’ll ever see. A lot of the Conjuring movies are deathly serious; Annabelle Comes Home is the only film in the franchise that manages to blend horror with genuine comedic beats. These characters are quite dumb, but it’s also the only Conjuring Universe film to acknowledge it. It’s a solid film for a sleepover. Or, better yet, when the babysitter comes over.
Writer/director Gary Dauberman also has a few tricks up his sleeve in the scare department. Daniela (Katie Sarife) watching herself on the haunted TV as it shows what will happen to her only a few seconds into the future is a genuinely creative horror setpiece. This is the kind of directorial debut that feels like the precursor to something better down the road.
#3: The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The Conjuring 2 is a classic case of sequelitis. It’s bigger than The Conjuring in every way: it’s longer, more sprawling, and even has more demonic entities. Realistically, there’s no reason why this movie had to be 134 minutes, but James Wan knows how to make a mainstream horror movie, and he treats the film with enough care for it all to be warranted on some level.
As with the original, James Wan is the star here. I’ve always admired his kinetic and creative shooting style. His camera is rarely static, and even when it is, he’s playing with focus and depth of field. The best sequence in the entire film is when Patrick Wilson’s Ed Warren must turn his back to Bill Wilkins to interrogate him. You can hardly see a thing beyond Wilson’s face, but you can vaguely make out the outline of the demon taking shape in the background as the conversation unfolds. It’s one of the few examples of creeping dread in the entire franchise. I vastly prefer the scares in the first half of this film.
This was also the movie that cemented Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as a great movie couple. Their chemistry is off the charts.
#2: Annabelle: Creation (2017)
Annabelle: Creation is a fantastic movie to see in theaters. Scares happen frequently — both at night and in broad daylight. The film plays like it’s actively trying to subvert mainstream horror movie conventions at all times. Frankly, more films in the Conjuring Universe could take a page out of Annabelle: Creation‘s book; if your film is going to rely entirely on jump scares, then why not make them as surprising as possible? This is the kind of horror movie that makes a crowd whoop and holler.
The film isn’t a game-changer by any means, but it works thanks to David F. Sandberg’s clever direction. After helming Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation, and Shazam!, Sandberg has proven himself as a good company man, a director who has no problems working within the constraints of studio mandates or cinematic universes but does a bang-up job of it. With Annabelle: Creation, you get exactly what you bargained for: a fun, rollercoaster ride of a horror movie.
Read the site’s review of Annabelle: Creation by clicking here.
#1: The Conjuring (2013)
The major difference between The Conjuring and the rest of this franchise is the sense of atmosphere. Like its sequel, The Conjuring is at its best when the demonic contact is small. Shots such as the view of the Perron family unpacking their car through the house window as if Bathsheba is watching them from the inside are sorely missed in other films. It’s the kind of choice that warns of something very sinister even before a demon makes an appearance. The booming score that accompanies a lot of the film isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s very effective and distinctive.
Films like The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, The Exorcist, and so many other classic horror movies are very obvious reference points for Wan, which makes The Conjuring ultimately a contemporary riff on better movies rather than a “horror classic” as some have been eager to call it. However, its own influence on modern horror is clear. Although Insidious came before it, The Conjuring emphatically marked the end of the “torture porn” era for horror, turning the genre toward the low-budget, “there’s something wrong with the house” era that we are still in to this day. It may not be Capital-G Great, but it revitalized the formula for many Great films that came after it.
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I haven’t seen the latest Conjuring film yet, but I think I agree with your ranking overall. I would swap Conjuring 2 and Annabelle: Creation though.
I think most people would agree with you! I just appreciate how Creation doubles down on making it a dumb and wild haunted house ride instead of adding any fake prestige sensibilities to it. ;)
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