They’ll Just Keep Conjuring That Garbage
3:52 PM EDT on October 17, 2023
Horror is cheap to produce and often cheap to market, even and especially outside of the Halloween season. This is how The Conjuring, released in summer of 2013, became a box-office smash for Warner Bros. It’s also why, 10 years later, the franchise has more or less been stripped for parts. Various sequels and spin-offs have arrived over the last decade, all adding up to approximately $2 billion in ticket sales weighed against a combined production budget that currently totals less than the first Avengers movie. If one is talking metrics, there is no other way to think of the franchise than as a success. And, looking back at the way the producers and screenwriters of the first film talked about it, the fact that any of these films turned out decent was only a coincidence.
Before The Conjuring, most people thought of its protagonists, the real-life paranormal investigative couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, as polite, well-meaning salespeople who thought too highly of what they were shilling. Their product was supposed evidence of the supernatural and demonic, of malevolent spirits and persistent evil infestations. It’s often said that the Warrens’ claim to fame stemmed from their proximity to the Amityville Horror, a famous haunting that took place in the ‘70s in Long Island. The events spawned a best-selling book and iconic horror film of the same name. But even the Warrens’ role here is dubious. The bulk of the Amityville occurrences took place over the course of a month, between December 1975, when the Lutz family moved into the colonial home in the titular neighborhood, and January 1976, when the family left after repeated paranormal phenomena disturbed them enough to flee. Two months later, in March, the Warrens conducted a televised walk-through of the Amityville house, which turned up some spooky infrared pictures that weren’t publicly available until 1979, when the Amityville Horror film came out.
As with any well-publicized instance of the supernatural, controversy sparked over whether or not anything the Lutzes claimed was true. The following year, in 1977, an attorney involved in the matter claimed that he, the Lutzes, and Jay Anson, author of the book, came up with the story “over many bottles of wine.” The Warrens maintained that the house was overtaken by some sort of dark entity. Reporters and judges ruled otherwise. Still, even their harshest critics tended to concede that the Warrens, mild-mannered Catholics from New England, were true believers who, though adamant about their experiences, treated people kindly. In a certain light, their endeavors appear as little more than sensationalist fodder, media-driven appeals to the sanctity and power of the Catholic Church without whose guidance the Warrens claimed people would be susceptible to possession.
On its face, none of this background has much to do with The Conjuring as a piece of entertainment. One of the freeing advantages of Hollywood adaptation is the funneling of (un)truth into dramatic narrative. Whether or not what the Warrens claimed to have happened actually did becomes a titillating context, the historical foundation upon which the movie is built rather than proof of its falsity. It seems that Ed Warren knew this to some extent. In the late ‘80s or early ‘90s (exact dates are hard to come by), Warren sought out producer Tony DeRosa-Grund and played him audio from an interview he conducted with a woman named Carolyn Perron, who claimed to be experiencing inexplicable happenings in her farmhouse in Rhode Island. The Perron family’s story became the basis for The Conjuring. DeRosa-Grund wrote a treatment and attempted to get the film, then titled The Warren Files, produced for years before new financiers and a retooling of the script refocused the project on the Warrens instead of the Perrons.
We’re now eight films deep into a franchise that, in a slightly earlier era, would have lived on in the bargain bin of a 7/11. This isn’t to say that The Conjuring Universe, as it’s collectively known, necessarily overplays its value. It was the producers’ best instinct to enlist James Wan, hot off the success of the first Insidious film, to direct the first two Conjuring installments, alternating between laughably serious melodrama (in general, all of the Christian stuff in these movies is gauzy, soap-opera adjacent schlock) and skillful, practical scares. Ed Warren, who looked like an affable extra in a Martin Scorsese film, and Lorraine, whose visage echoes that of Jessica Lange circa American Horror Story, are played by the younger, conventionally attractive pair of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, two actors now liquid for the rest of their lives as long as they show their face in a Conjuring spin-off every now and again. Really, it was Wan’s heavy lifting that laid the groundwork for what was to come, overseeing the striking designs of the franchise’s two most recognizable villains: Annabelle the doll and the Nun. What’s interesting to note here, as the franchise ends its first decade, is how the current landscape and the filmmakers’ ingenuity (or lack thereof) will influence its future.
In many ways, The Conjuring’s success is partially due to the MCU. When so many other studios endeavored to build out serialized IP that could span multiple time periods, characters, and worlds, few actually managed to stay afloat. Perhaps it’s a necessary capitulation on the part of the studios to term it “The Conjuring Universe.” The concept of a well-executed spin-off isn’t at all a novel one. But the corporate mindset has already infected the franchise’s latter entries, to steeply diminishing returns. Though a few of The Conjuring films stand out (I maintain Annabelle: Creation is severely underrated), most have surrendered to what one might call Marvel syndrome. Pointless cameos abound, along with winking references to ancillary characters and events consequential in other spin-offs. These movies have even adopted the obligatory end-credits tease, which often emphasize the specious interconnectedness of one installment to another. In a more literal sense, the sixth franchise entry, Annabelle Comes Home, from 2019, reads like The Avengers for evil objects, with the infamous doll leading a rogues' gallery of cursed artifacts. The overarching feeling begins to be one of asset management and desperation, without any hint of embarrassment or shame on the part of filmmakers who know certain people will always show up for even the most trifling additions.
What theater-going audiences have to choose from is increasingly predicated on the existence of a handful of production companies who don’t have any idea how to handle their own IP. Sometimes we get bizarre, hilarious half-efforts like The Pope’s Exorcist, which, of course, ends with the blatant suggestion of a sequel. David Gordon Green’s putrid Halloween trilogy, which began in 2018 and concluded last year, straddled the line between unnecessary but lucrative reboot, theatrical success story, and glitzy streaming acquisition, with the transition to the latter taking place during the pandemic. In 2021, NBCUniversal spent $400 million on the rights to a new Exorcist trilogy helmed by Green and produced by Blumhouse, the wildly profitable brainchild of producer Jason Blum, whose paws are all over this year’s main crop of horror releases. (He and James Wan are planning to merge their two companies, which is horrifying in its own right.) The transparent cynicism of such transactions has yet to be fully stymied by audience ambivalence. The first Exorcist continuation has already made its money back and apparently the Russo brothers are going to try their hand at resurrecting Poltergeist (again).
By comparison, the relatively stripped-down mythology of The Conjuring, with its naughty, much-memed demons and cartoonishly faithful, chock-a-block heroes, threatens to appear humble, even old school. More genuine throwback flavor would be welcome, though it’s far too late now. The hyperreality of ever-innovating digital cinematography, in tandem with rampant computer-generated effects, has given the franchise a kind of video game airlessness; we’re left with handcrafted filmmaking doing its best AI impression. During press for The Nun 2, director Michael Chaves hinted that a franchise finale tentatively called The Conjuring: Last Rites was in development. The film is supposed to feature the Warrens in some sort of explosive send-off, though, in the same interview, Chaves remarked on the endless future potential of other secondary characters. At a certain point, the question of when enough is enough surpasses its usefulness. Studios pay attention to box-office revenue before any consideration for quality or critical opinion, which they can just manufacture after the fact. It’s difficult now to see a good premise like The Conjuring given the chance to simply end. There’s always someone rooting around trying to negotiate likeness and TV rights.
And maybe I’m being hopefully naive because even endings aren’t true endings. Patrick Wilson, who has become James Wan’s muse, directed the final Insidious film, Insidious: The Red Door, which was released earlier this year. A tidy, admirably small-scale wrap-up of the main Lambert family’s various encounters with astral projection, the film ends with father and son driving off into a bright, hopeful future. Two months prior to The Red Door’s release, it was announced a spin-off titled Threads: An Insidious Tale, starring Mandy Moore and Kumail Nanjiani, was already in development.