HEAT VISION

With 'The Nun,' 'Conjuring' Cinematic Universe Breaks the Mold

Part of what has made the films appealing has been the series’ ability to largely avoid having a house style that creates a sense of sameness.

A long corridor, mist rising from the ground, and black crosses hanging by chains from an unseen ceiling that we can only surmise stops just short of heaven. A graveyard, populated with crooked crosses, and tombstones rigged with bells in case the dead should wake. A castle, entryway splattered with blood and a corpse hanging from its windows, eyes in the process of being devoured by crows. These are familiar haunts — staples of the gothic horror movies of Europe in the '70s and '80s. It’s in these places, marked by history, where we find ourselves in Corin Hardy’s The Nun. We’re rooted in the franchise known as the Conjuring Universe, which has found success in remixing a number of the aesthetic choices from classic horror with contemporary scares and characterizations.

Despite this through-line, this is a universe where the rules aren’t entirely clear, despite the factor of pre-existing material in the case of the Warren Files. The Conjuring Universe, to the benefit of artists and audiences, remains unmapped. In its lack of a grand design, horror reigns with an identity befitting each entry. While the idea of cinematic universes, still relatively novel for film franchises, is often met with groans with few exceptions, The Conjuring Universe has become a model for success, one that quietly snuck up on audiences in the dark.

When James Wan first unveiled The Conjuring to audiences in 2013, most had little idea of what to expect. Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren had yet to become household names, and Wan had earned his reputation on Saw and Insidious – ambitious but grimy, low-cost films geared towards the midnight movie crowd. The Conjuring’s summer release date was our first hint that Wan was about to redefine expectations. While summer horror movies have since become a staple in the five years following The Conjuring’s release, Wan’s film was the first horror film to receive a wide release in the coveted months of June or July since 2006’s remake, The Omen – and that was only because of the all-too perfect marketing date of 6-6-06. The Conjuring, with its slow zooms, deft characterizations, multi-faceted narratives and economic use of digital effects tapped into something that contemporary horror was missing and has since regained – a sense of scale. The Conjuring succeeded both critically and financially (86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and $319.5 million on a $20 million budget) because it made horror into an event again.

Undoubtedly, part of the excitement for that initial film stemmed from the fact that there was no Conjuring Universe right off the bat. While plans for The Conjuring 2 (2016) came together before the first film’s release, after positive test screenings, New Line didn’t tease a massive franchise at the start. Even Annabelle (2014), which was hurried into production as a reaction to the success of The Conjuring – something that mars the final product when compared to the franchise’s other entries, wasn’t sold to audiences as a cinematic universe entry, but rather a spinoff film. Even the notion of a spin-off movie has a throwback quality to it that doesn’t hype the film up as an integral entry, but sets rather modest expectations directed towards a willing fanbase. Despite John R. Leonetti’s Annabelle being regarded as an inferior successor to The Conjuring (though it did make $257 million on a $6.5 million budget), it did no damage to the brand. And regardless of the critical reaction, it established a few principles for New Line to use when approaching its Conjuring franchise: greenlight films based on what audiences react to, and get them made quickly.

The approach to The Conjuring Universe is similar to the property that gave New Line its nickname in the '80s and '90s, “the House that Freddy Built.” But while the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was only successful because of one character, Freddy Krueger, The Conjuring Universe, thanks to James Wan, has gone about establishing a host of creepy characters with the potential to become modern horror icons: Annabelle, the Nun, and the Crooked Man. Even if Annabelle wasn’t a critical winner, the design of the doll itself and core concept was too strong for audiences not to be drawn to the vastly superior prequel, Annabelle: Creation (2017). Coupled with the fact that The Conjuring 2 didn’t let the entity fall to the wayside, Annabelle has remained part of the horror conversation. New Line seems to have found the sweet spot with the timing of their properties by avoiding yearly releases ala Saw and Paranormal Activity that cause audience burnout after entry three, but not waiting so long that the characters lose their place in the horror movie zeitgeist in the way so many one-time horror icons have. The Conjuring Universe has managed to achieve what so few cinematic universes have done: establish themselves for the long-haul.

Even before the films adjacent to the main Conjuring entries are released, there is a legend built up around their featured characters. From the continual presence of Annabelle, to the introduction of the Nun in The Conjuring 2 and the allusions to her in Annabelle: Creation, The Conjuring Universe has managed to create an eagerness to see these characters on screen and in our nightmares again. Ed and Lorraine Warren may be the glue that holds the whole series together, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are easily the series’ most recognizable actors, but the franchise is not dependent on its star characters. That in itself is something of wonder. When a new Spider-Man has to be sold to audiences through the appearance of Iron Man, or Dark Universe sold (or not sold) through '90s star power rather than the monsters themselves, it’s a significant statement on cinematic universes that The Conjuring Universe can entice audiences with demonic presences that previously had little more than five minutes of screen time.

Part of what has made The Conjuring Universe and its central threats so appealing has been the series’ ability to largely avoid having a house-style that creates a sense of sameness and dull uniformity. Wan’s two Conjuring films are drastically different from each other stylistically, while still managing to echo Spielberg and Stuart Rosenberg.  Although Annabelle attempted to mimic Wan, the only incident of an attempt at house style, David Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation took pages from Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon. Corin Hardy goes the furthest from any sense of established aesthetic for the franchise by showcasing a style born of Terence Fisher, and a pitch black sense of humor spawned from Sam Raimi, in The Nun. What we’re being offered here truly feels universal, both in terms of being a cinematic universe but also tapping into what made those classic Universal Monster movies so successful. The Conjuring Universe is succeeding not only because of a multitude of characters, but because of styles and tones that feel expansive enough to populate their own worlds and create a varied sense of horror.

The Conjuring Universe has managed to be interconnected without pointing directly to where the franchise will go next. As successful and beloved as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, there is often a sense, that in the grand scheme of things, we know where we’re going next. For six years, we’ve known a showdown with Thanos was inevitable. And we know, because of greenlit sequels, that certain characters will survive the events of Avengers 4. Films like Captain Marvel or Black Widow, which fans have longed years for, were delayed not for the benefit of viewers but for the benefit of a plan that seems rigid. But with The Conjuring Universe, which admittedly does have the advantage of significantly smaller budgets than any of the MCU’s offerings, is able to react almost instantaneously to fan buzz. It’s New Line’s ability to react quickly that allows for The Nun to arrive now rather than years down the line, or for Annabelle to receive a third entry next year. Additionally, while the films do contain bookends that tie into a larger narrative, each entry in The Conjuring Universe feels self-contained to the point that viewers could start anywhere without missing any necessary setup.

Each film in The Conjuring Universe feels special in terms of being what it is, rather than a stepping stone leading to some grand showdown or crossover. The Conjuring, Annabelle, and The Nun collectively create a portrait of global horror in the mid-20th century, but as individual franchises they have room to go in their own direction, dispatch of characters, and offer different styles and tones in their efforts to create horror remixes. As fun as a potential Annabelle/Nun crossover film could be, there’s something of merit in each entry’s ability to offer no greater threat or point of enticement than its own namesake. The films that make up The Conjuring Universe are nesting dolls, little stories hidden inside of each other that allow for a grand experience, but are still able to exist and be admired for their own individual functionality and coat of paint. And just when we think we have every story laid out in front of us, we find another buried inside the previous one waiting to conjure up some new fascination.

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