With Annabelle Comes Home now playing in cinemas, we are eight films into the hugely successful The Conjuring Universe. Travis Johnson deep dives into this dark world of weeping women, nasty nuns and possessed dolls.
James Wan’s The Conjuring Universe stands as the most successful cinematic universe this side of Earth-199999 (that’s the MCU, true believers).
While the DC Extended Universe quickly floundered, the Dark Universe couldn’t even crawl out of the Mummy’s tomb, and other attempts at kickstarting or kitbashing together a sprawling and lucrative franchise have all stalled (although the jury is still out on The Fast and the Furious: Hobbs and Shaw), these loosely “factual” fright factories have been quietly and profitably chugging away, knitting together a creepy milieu of haunted houses, cursed dolls, vengeful nuns and psychic investigators.
With Annabelle Comes Home now in cinemas, we’re eight films deep into this shadowy realm and, with at least three more already slated for release, our journey into darkness is far from over yet.
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The World of the Warrens
It was producer and writer Tony DeRosa-Grund who first undertook to make a film based on the alleged haunting endured by the Perron family of Rhode Island in the early 1970s. But it was only when screenwriting brothers Carey and Chad Hayes came on board that things really started to move. The horror veterans, who had already written 2005’s House of Wax and 2007’s The Reaping, hit upon the idea of switching the focus from the beleaguered Perrons to the self-proclaimed demonologists who investigated the haunting: Ed and Lorraine Warren.
The Warrens and their work were already famous enough – or infamous enough, if you prefer, to have inspired earlier films, most notably 1979’s The Amityville Horror, an account of the most notorious (and now completely debunked) haunting in American history. The founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, the pair claimed to have investigated hundreds of hauntings and possessions, and maintained a museum of occult artifacts in their Connecticut home – enough material for a whole franchise of fright features.
…but in 2013, just one for now. Directed by James Wan (Saw), and starring Patrick Wilson as Ed, Vera Farmiga as Lorraine, The Conjuring was a smash hit, making almost US$320m on a $20m budget. What’s more both the Perron family and Lorrain Warren (Ed having crossed over in 2006) signed off on the film as factually accurate, which may hold no water with the more skeptical, but certainly didn’t hurt the film’s marketing.
This Haunted England
The Conjuring 2 followed three years later, an adaptation of the Warrens’ account of their dealings with the so-called Enfield Poltergeist of 1977. Once gain directed by Wan, this sequel was made with double the budget but pulled in roughly the same at the box office. It did two interesting things in terms of the franchise as a whole. For one, it started with a prelude sequence showing the Warrens investigating the Amityville house, which is a cute nod to the series’ cinematic forebear. For another, it introduced what might be considered the big bad of the Conjuring Universe: the demon Valak, aka The Nun.
Valak, who is loosely based on a real occult figure mentioned in the 17th century grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon, was a fresh addition to the story, with no earlier account of either the Amityville Haunting of the Enfield Poltergeist mentioning the demon. However, the hellish fellow brings with it a sense of connection and continuity. Being positioned as being behind the events in the Amityville prelude and the main story, he hints at a larger occult world underpinning the action of the films.
According to the Warrens, the real world Annabelle – a rather benign-looking Raggedy Ann doll rather than the flinch-inducing nightmare of the films – is the most dangerous item in their collection, home to a malicious demonic spirit. The film, directed by John R. Leonetti (Wolves at the Door), certainly does its best to convey that, with the added wrinkle that it’s a demon pretending to be a ghost haunting a doll that is terrorising poor Annabelle Wallis’ suburban mum and her baby daughter (there’s a lot of that in these films. In The Conjuring 2 a demon is basically blackmailing a ghost to do its bidding).
The critics mauled the film upon release, but audiences didn’t care and Annabelle raked in almost US$270m worldwide. That kind of money will bring back a demon faster than any salt circle and murmured incantation. Annabelle returned to the screen in 2014 for the prequel Annabelle: Creation. Directed by David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), it is an effective creeper that garnered much better notices than its predecessor. And, of course, we now have the arrival of Annabelle Comes Home, in which the titular doll menaces the Warrens’ own daughter, played by pre-teen horror veteran, Mckenzie Grace (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Haunting of Hill House)
Nasty Nuns and Weeping Women
Meanwhile, our demonic eminence gris Valak got an origin story of sorts with 2018’s The Nun. Set in 1950s Romania, the film sees director Corin Hardy directly homage Universal and Hammer’s Backlot Gothic potboilers to tell the tale of a young nun (Taiga Farmiga, sister of Vera) and a jaded priest (Demian Bichir), who are dispatched to investigate a series of deaths at a remote nunnery and run smack-bang into Valak. With its heavy religious imagery and a plot that hinges on using the actual blood of Christ as a weapon against evil, this is the most explicitly Christian film in a series that, although packed full of horrors, is heavily predicated on faith (the real-world Warrens were devoutly Catholic).
Speaking of devoutly Catholic, that faith also features heavily in this year’s The Curse of La Llorona, a film which could just about look like a stand-alone horror, were it not for the presence of Father Perez (Tony Amendola) from The Conjuring 2, who crops up to compare the events here with those surrounding the doll. Drawing on the Mexican folk tradition of the weeping woman, the film sees Linda Cardellini’s social worker investigating the drowning deaths of two Hispanic boys, and discovering that the culprit is, as you have no doubt come to expect by now, an evil spirit. The use of folklore from heavily Catholic Mexico gives this one a frisson all its own.
Short Sharp Shocks
Flying a little under the radar of most fans are the five short films that comprise part of The Conjuring’s continuity. As a promotional exercise for Annabelle: Creation, Warner Brothers invited filmmakers around the world to submit two minutes film that could be part of the same shared universe. Five filmmaking teams – one each from the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Sweden and Colombia – won, and so The Nurse, the Confession, what’s Wrong With Mom?, Blund’s Lullaby, and Innocent Souls are now canonical.