Four movies in — with at least three more on deck — and the burgeoning The Conjuring Universe is continuing to scare up big box office bucks with no sign of slowing down. Even during the downturned, dog days of summer, the latest film in the franchise, prequel-to-a-sequel “Annabelle: Creation,” topped out as the weekend’s biggest winner, pulling in over $35 million in domestic returns and handily dispatching with its nearest competition (“Dunkirk,” now in its fourth week, made just $11.4 million to take second place). The 21st century has already played home to one of the genre’s biggest hit franchises ever and has steadily rolled out new offerings that seem destined to inspire their own series but, for now, “The Conjuring” is king. And it won’t stop until it becomes the biggest horror franchise of the century.
The franchise has some stiff competition, including the “Paranormal Activity” films ($401.4 million) and the “Insidious” franchise ($189.8 million), though both series have stalled out after churning out massive profits over the course of relatively short runs. The wildly popular (and crazy profitable) “Paranormal Activity” franchise trucked through six films in just six years (including its own attempt to branch off into a new series, thanks to “The Marked Ones”), though there are no plans to make a seventh film and producer Jason Blum has repeatedly maintained that the sixth film was indeed the final one. And while the “Insidious” series is rolling out a fourth film in January of next year, the film would have have to do crazy business (like $200 million business) at the box office to catch up with “The Conjuring.”
The “Conjuring” franchise, on the other hand, is continuing to expand out on both its original premise and at least three spinoffs, including (presumably) more “Annabelle,” a feature about the “crooked man” character, and even a film all about the nun that popped up in “The Conjuring 2.” More traditionally minded fans will reportedly be gifted with a “Conjuring 3” in the next couple of years, too, thanks to a newly-announced sequel that will continue to focus on the Warrens’ case files. For now, however, “The Conjuring” keeps scaring up the fans (and the box office bucks) — here’s how they did it.
1. A Fresh Take on An Old Story
James Wan’s “The Conjuring” took two of modern horror’s most well-known characters — real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, score another point for excellent casting) — and inserted them into an admittedly very familiar story: a haunted house possession tale, gone wild. The Warrens and their exploits have already inspired one other horror franchise with similar tones and themes, thanks to “The Amityville Horror” and its myriad adaptations, all inspired by their experiences with yet another sprawling suburban home seemingly given over to ghosts and poltergeists.
But Wan didn’t try to recreate “Amityville” with “The Conjuring,” instead opting to craft a standalone horror outing that works entirely on its own merits, most of them rooted in Wan’s meticulous attention to detail, particularly when it comes to his cast. Sure, the house “becomes its own character,” but Chad and Carey Hayes’ script avoids making the film’s actual human characters feel rote or interchangeable, fleshing out key details for both the large Perron family and the Warrens and their own team. You care about these people, which makes the scares even more jarring, because suddenly there’s more at stake beyond something vaguely bad happening to a “scared teenager” or an “awkward little kid” or the “freaked out mom.” They’re people (basing the film on a true story sure doesn’t hurt matters either, though the Hayes and Wan took some big liberties), and that’s when emotion comes into play. You care.
Warner Bros. Pictures
“The Conjuring” is rife with scares, and Wan scales them with ease throughout the film, from the chills of the Perron family’s “hide and clap” game, which is unsettling from the start, before giving way to a full-scale nightmare sequence, to a no-holds-barred exorcism scene that ranks among the best in the genre. Mixing up the scary stuff and not just honing in on one style or one jump scare helps “The Conjuring” ably deliver its most chilling coup: the pervasive sense of dread that never, ever abates.
And while “The Conjuring” doesn’t shy away from the depth of the Warrens’ experience in the realm of the creepy and crawly, it’s an element that is played to add to the story at hand, not just to build up the possibility of future features. “The Conjuring,” taken on its own, is still a great, multi-faceted horror offering with scares to spare. Wan adapted those same ideas to “The Conjuring 2,” which presents another beleaguered (and bedeviled?) family in a house of horrors, one that can presumably only be saved by the Warrens. Despite the similar plot, “The Conjuring 2” feels very different than its predecessor — in many ways, less grounded, but still with scares that stem from psychological wounds more than weirdos in the basement — and it continues to push out the legend of both the Warrens and the kind of insane terror they deal with as a matter of profession.
The “Annabelle” films are also nimble beasts, jumping from the obvious aims of “Annabelle” (which takes place just before the events of “The Conjuring” and ends a different perspective to the tale of the possessed doll) to the more traditional origin story of “Annabelle: Creation” (which still packs in a few shockers, mainly that Annabelle the doll was always creepy).
2. Flexible Release Dates
The signature release date pattern has snared such major franchises as “Star Wars” (May, then December, then back to May ) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (early May as old reliable, with more dates added to accommodate the ever-growing series) in recent years, “The Conjuring” franchise has mostly avoided it, along with the pervasive belief that fall is the most obvious home for scary stuff (Halloween and all that).
Instead, “The Conjuring” movies have hit all over the map, from June to July, August to October, honing in on spots in the calendar left blank by obvious competition (save for “Annabelle,” which fell to “Gone Girl” back in 2014) and primed for something terrifyingly new. This summer in particular has been packed with superhero offerings and franchise-starters, and the mid-August release of “Annabelle: Creation” — a sequel, to be sure, but one that doesn’t require advance understanding — looked like a welcome respite at the end of a season sputtering into its final weeks. At the very least, it was something different. That’s something that’s been in short supply.
3. Spinning Off Whatever Works
That doll that freaked everyone out? Sequel. The nun that left a major mark in the sequel? Spinoff. A slender folk monster that became the big bad of the second film? He’s already got his own feature in development.
“The Conjuring” series is aces at the two-pronged attack: crafting terrifying characters that can live inside one film, before breaking out to head up their very own feature. Annabelle was a side character in a side story from the first “Conjuring,” but the mythos behind the haunted doll was freaky enough to inspire its own series. Similarly, both the nun and the crooked man were key supporting characters in “The Conjuring 2” that left a big enough mark to engender their own features, with “The Nun” teed up for a 2018 release and “The Crooked Man” currently in development. Beyond just relying on the Warrens and their stories to spark sequels and spinoffs, The Conjuring Universe takes what works and explodes it out to its creepiest possible end.
4. Genuine Scares
We’ll just leave this right here.
It’s The Conjuring Universe. We’re just living in it — screaming our way through each installment, always eager for the next one.