Franchise Corner Entry: THE CONJURING UNIVERSE 


THE CONJURING **** USA 2013 Dir: James Wan. 113 mins

Released within weeks of the equally lucrative INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2, this box office smash employs a definitive “Based On The True Story” title card and a suitably gaudy 70’s yellow font for the title itself, acknowledging its debt to that decade’s supernatural horror films. THE CONJURING takes as much from THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE EXORCIST and THE CHANGELING as it does from the true story, while sharing a creepy doll fetish with Wan’s commercial failure DEAD SILENCE, and, like INSIDIOUS, borrowing much from POLTERGEIST.
In 1971, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston discover that the series of alarming events befalling them and their five daughters are linked to a Salem witch’s curse on their Rhode Island property. Renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) arrive to investigate, having already accumulated enough artefacts from prior supernatural encounters to create a museum in their own home (one that resembles the curio shop in the FRIDAY THE 13TH TV series). Although relying to some extent on Dolby Stereo-assisted jolts, Wan opts for an effectively creepy slow-burn approach and proves a master of this territory: his command of the ever gliding camera, sleek yet unnerving tracking shots and the widescreen frame is exemplary. It’s superbly shot (with deliberately 70’s-styled use of the zoom lens) and, accompanied by the abrasive musical stylings of Joseph Bishara (another carry-over from the INSIDIOUS films), achieves several frightening sequences, notably a harrowing game of “Hide And Clap”. The film inevitably front-loads the most subtle (and therefore the scariest) stuff in the first hour, with the second half resorting to exploding lightbulbs and Patrick Wilson yelling at a demon to go to Hell. Still, it’s very well played, and introduces one of horror cinema’s most terrifying dolls (afforded her own spin-off prequel, ANNABELLE), while setting up a profitable franchise that looks set to run and run. Farmiga’s last line, establishing their subsequent Amityville investigation, sets up the introduction of the inevitable THE CONJURING 2.

ANNABELLE *** USA 2014 Dir: John R. Leonetti 99 mins

Released between the first two CONJURING movies, this small scale spin-off awards the narratively-incidental creepy doll from THE CONJURING a film of her own, directed by producer James Wan’s long-time cinematographer (his C.V. has sinister doll experience – he shot DEAD SILENCE and CHILD’S PLAY 3). Prior to the events of THE CONJURING, Ward Horden buys his pregnant wife (Annabelle Wallis) the hideous doll for their developing nursery, even though it’s the kind of thing that would obviously traumatise a child into a lifetime of night-terrors and self-harm. While watching news footage of the Manson family’s rampage, the couple are terrorised by crazed cultists themselves, one of whom lives long enough to exert a demonic influence over the doll. Leonetti’s eye for genre material results in an atmospheric looking film with a relatively restrained number of lazy jump scares and a slow-burn creepiness enhanced by fluid widescreen tracking shots that sometimes yield a shock but often times do not. The early 70’s period detail reflects the influence of that decade’s supernatural movies, and certain sequences (particularly the elevator ride from Hell) are genuinely eerie. In an era when exposition is typically conveyed via an uncinematic Google search, there’s something pleasing about the occult-savvy bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard) who explains the plot, though her character provides the daftest moment during a rushed, corny climax. The leads are bland and stuck with wading through the usual sub-story of the stupidly unsuspecting husband (always out of the house when weird shit is going down) unconvinced that his wife’s terrifying experiences are not the result of post-partum anxiety. The biggest misjudgement turns out to be an unfrightening Greg Nicotero-designed demon that has been using the doll as a conduit; Annabelle on her own, even though she barely moves onscreen, is frightening enough to sustain her own movie without this fella hogging the limelight.

THE CONJURING 2 **** USA 2016 Dir: James Wan. 134 mins

THE CONJURING always felt like a (very good) pilot for a long running Hollywood franchise, and the swiftly generated sequel fittingly opens with an extended nod to a key inspiration, following the Warrens’ harrowing experience at the infamous Amityville house. Considering retirement from the paranormal as a result, the Warrens are instead drawn into the experiences of a divorced mother (Frances O’Connor) and her four children at their Enfield council house, where violent poltergeist activity has evolved into apparent possession of the youngest daughter (Madison Wolfe).
Defined as “Britain’s Amityville”, the Enfield case has already inspired a TV mini-series (“The Enfield Haunting”) and significant portions of the excellent WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT and GHOSTWATCH. Director James Wan recreates a suitably dreary and oppressive late 70’s London, characterised by permanently overcast skies, dismal interiors and ineffectual authorities with no answers for a family in terror. The widescreen frame immerses us in this increasingly traumatic homestead, with witty use of period detail: this might be the only horror film in history to stage a false fright involving a poster of contemporary heartthrob David Soul. The first hour is particularly strong as we become aware of the invasive presence, and both O’Connor (garnering sympathy without patronising anyone) and Wolfe are terrific as mother and daughter; the more explicit, CG-enhanced frights of the latter stages are less compelling. It’s overlong by as much as half an hour, with too many endings, too many over-familiar “experts” and a strain of old-fashioned Hollywood corniness that extends to one of the fluffiest horror movie endings of recent times. Still, the charisma of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga generates goodwill, and the movie more than delivers on its promise of jolts and scares in its often jarring portrait of a well-documented case.

ANNABELLE: CREATION *** USA 2017 Dir: David F Sandberg. 109 mins

A prequel to a prequel, marketed as merely the “latest chapter in THE CONJURING universe” and with a sneaky bit of signposting to the later spin-off THE NUN to prove it. LIGHTS OUT director David Sandberg was a natural choice to make this 1950’s set picture, indulging his fixation on assorted light sources while achieving effective frissons involving spontaneously opening closet doors and a persistently ringing hand bell. As is often the case in this sub-genre, the relatively quiet first half is the spookiest: in a jolting prologue, the young daughter of toymaker Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto is fatally struck by a car. Twelve years later – with Otto now a rarely seen recluse – the couple embrace the arrival of a group of orphans into their home and the visitors (and us) soon become aware of the origins of “Annabelle” and her ties to the past tragedy. Sandberg makes inventive, atmospheric use of the widescreen frame, offering innocuous details that will later turn sinister : a dumb waiter, the song “You Are My Sunshine”, a paper trail enhanced game of Hide and Seek and the Stannah Stairlift to Hell. In the latter stages, it repeats the mistakes of THE CONJURING 2 by overloading the scare machine – roping in Punch And Judy, a scarecrow, a variation of the best scare in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 and a black-faced demon whose glowering / roaring appearances are far less chilling than the always-static Annabelle. The cast is strong, with naturalistic child performances, but overlength exposes its limitations (there’s a reason why LIGHTS OUT was 30 minutes shorter) and you’ve long had enough by the time the script awkwardly tacks on an extra ending that takes things full circle to the opening sequence of the earlier (but later-set) ANNABELLE.

THE NUN ** USA 2018 Dir: Corin Hardy. 96 mins

The Nun, aka “Valak The Defiler” (every village has one), provided some unnecessary extra jolts in the over-crowded CONJURING 2 and here – again played by Bonnie Aarons – gets a 1952-set solo venture from the writer (Gary Dauberman) of the ANNABELLE movies. Valak, summoned by the Duke who built the Romanian abbey in which THE NUN unfolds, was revived after centuries of Jesus-assisted banishment by the bombs of World War II. The Vatican (now incorporating Michael Smiley!) sends haunted Priest Demian Bichin (cue: cliched botched-exorcism backstory!) and novice Taissa Farmiga to investigate a nun’s recent suicide at the abbey. This awkward Gothic buddy-movie set-up also ropes in comedy relief French Canadian Jonas Bloquet and a sample of their “humorous” interactions include the moment where Bichin discovers a plot-essential relic, exclaiming earnestly “The blood of Christ!” “Frenchie” replies “Holy shit!” and our man of the cloth notes with a straight face: “The holiest!”
This box office hit sees the CONJURING franchise spreading itself very thin, straining to conceive enough legitimate scares or narrative turns even for this sparse-for-2018 running time. British director Hardy graduated from the impressive low budgeter THE HALLOW and, assisted by Alexandre Aja’s regular cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, gives the film an evocative Hammer / Bava-inspired visual sense rich with nocturnal graveyards and fairy tale forests hugged by omnipresent mist. There’s even a marvellously miserable, mirror-covering Hammer-style pub named The Black Bear, complete with portentous barman. Sadly, The Nun herself just gets sillier the more she appears (the best scare was in the trailer), and the film rapidly empties its bag of tired tricks, from telegraphed shrieking jump scares to unnecessarily laboured scenes of ridiculous characters explaining the plot. The dialogue is often awful (“Perpetual adulation – it’s the only thing that’s been holding back the evil!”) and it even bungles its own homage to the palm-sweating premature burial sequence from Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD thanks to confusing editing and another gratuitous damn jump scare. Like the ANNABELLE movies, it ends by tying the story back to the CONJURING movies. Coming soon (probably) : a spin-off about a spooky looking paperweight glimpsed in the background of one shot of THE CONJURING.

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA *** USA 2019 Dir: Michael Chaves. 93 mins

La Llorona, aka The Weeping Woman, has already been the subject of several films and TV episodes, but, by virtue of an amusingly gratuitous appearance from ANNABELLE priest Tony Amendola, she is now the title star of the sixth film in the CONJURING “universe”. And in case we didn’t pick up on the tenuous link, Amendola has a Troy McClure “You may remember me from such films as…” moment followed by a quick cut away to the earlier film with That Doll. To tie in with ANNABELLE’s timeline, this unfolds in L.A. in 1973, where widowed social worker Linda Cardellini and her two kids learn that La Llorona is more than just an age-old Mexican folk tale: she has invaded their lives with a worrying propensity for burning people with her touch and drowning children. Director Chaves – whose next gig is THE CONJURING 3 – empties out a familiar bag of J-horror tricks: electric lights on the fritz, mysterious puddles, ghostly women in the mirror and frequent hand-grabbing jump scares. Like Corin Hardy’s THE NUN it opts early on for shrieking close-ups of the malevolent Nun-like female supernatural force: inevitably, the more screen time she hogs, the less scary she becomes. Meanwhile, the script reduces Cardellini to yelling “What are you doing in my house?!” at a demon while she loses all audience sympathy by repeatedly leaving her kids alone in the worst possible circumstances…including letting them wait in the family car at a location where two other kids have just been killed. At one point, following an egg-based ritual, she literally ends up with egg on her face. Nonetheless, there’s something endearing about this film’s commitment to delivering the goods and an almost Child Catcher-style glee in the way it keeps the children in constant peril. It’s briskly paced and has a delightfully deadpan turn from Raymond Cruz as a priest-turned-faith-healer (the one hope, the only hope…), while in between the fairground ride-style jump scares, there are creepy frissons, notably a scene of juvenile bathtub terror. Unlike THE NUN, it’s never dull and doesn’t outstay its welcome and if you want a subtler, creepier movie about La Llorona – good news, there’s an easily accessible 1961 Mexican horror movie out there for you. If you want the CONJURING universe interpretation, this will do the trick.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME ** USA 2019 Dir: Gary Dauberman. 106 mins

For the less attentive, this is the seventh film in the CONJURING “universe”, a franchise that has milked its most iconic element (Annabelle the doll) to the extent of giving her a guest appearance in the otherwise unconnected THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA. It opens with an extension of the opening sequence of THE CONJURING, then skips one year later so it can preface the main story of that film and act as a sequel to both ANNABELLE and ANNABELLE: CREATION. THE NUN is unavailable, having retired to the Bahamas on the profits of her film, spending her days smoking crack and mopping from her bosom the abundant ejaculate of an endless succession of magnificently endowed young groupies.
Structured and paced like an episode of a TV horror anthology series, this has sentimental bookends featuring the saintly Warrens (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) – first seen transporting the cursed doll to their basement of cursed goods. Since they have an impressionable young daughter (Mckenna Grace) in the house, they keep the most dangerous room in America securely locked – and leave the keys in an easy-to-find place in the main house. They also leave Grace in the care of a babysitter (Madison Iseman) and her friend (Katie Sarife) who quickly give in to curiosity and release Annabelle from captivity; acting as a conduit for all manner of threats, the doll unleashes various horrors: ghostly brides, demons and a shit werewolf.

There’s something appealingly retro about the studio-bound, small scale approach here, with the 1970’s décor reinforcing the feel of a US TV horror movie of that period. Unfortunately, it’s almost two hours long and the creaking, lethargic script saddles one of its teen protagonists with a cliched dead dad backstory to pad things out further. Annabelle barely figures in her own movie – her big, under-the-bedsheets scare moment having been blown by the trailer. The jump scares are underpowered and the manifestations of the supernatural mimic the GOOSEBUMPS movie and the FRIDAY THE 13TH TV series of the 1980’s while not being as scary or witty as either. It also makes attempts at humour (notably the running gag “Bob’s got balls”) that are only outdone on the Cringe Scale by the eagerness to depict the heroism of the Catholic Church. Worse still, it extends the syrupy wrap-up of THE CONJURING 2 with the series’ most saccharine end scene to date, tying in with the death earlier this year of Lorraine Warren.

Reviews by Steven West

 

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