For a franchise that spans three interconnected series, with six directors and seven screenwriters between nine movies, the Conjuring Universe’s lore is remarkably consistent. Annabelle wants souls, demons possess you by puking into your mouth, and no powers of darkness are stronger than the love between spooky mom and dad, Ed and Lorraine Warren. Less consistent, however, is the quality of the films.
The first film in the series, 2013’s The Conjuring, was directed by James Wan, whose straightforward-yet-stylish approach to horror is responsible for some of the most successful franchises in the genre’s history. (He’s also the creator of the Saw and Insidious series.) Wan left the director’s chair after helming The Conjuring 2 in 2016 but stayed on as a producer for the multiple follow-ups and spinoffs that followed. None come close to reaching the heights of Wan’s vision, but there are a few gems and a few real stinkers in the bunch. With the latest entry in the franchise, The Nun 2, in theaters now, we’re ranking the Conjuring Universe from scary (bad) to scary (good).
The Nun (2018)
It’s disappointing that The Nun is so bad, because the premise has so much promise. The origin story of the evil spirit Valak from The Conjuring 2, The Nun stars Taissa Farmiga (sister of Vera) as Irene, a young novitiate and clairvoyant summoned to a convent to investigate a fellow nun’s suicide. Given her similar psychic abilities and clear resemblance to her sister, it seemed obvious that Irene would turn out to be related to Lorraine Warren in some way. But nope! The Nun ends on a flashback to a scene from The Conjuring, revealing that Ed and Lorraine performed an exorcism on Maurice, the man who helped Irene defeat Valak but ended up getting secretly possessed in the process.
This strange stunt casting that wasn’t aside, The Nun has other issues. There is so much fun stuff you can do with a demon nun in a convent! There are lots of big, spooky spaces and the uniformity means anyone in a habit could be a threat. In fact, the most chilling images in The Nun are of sisters gathered together in an enclosed sanctuary or a black-robed figure ambling down a shadowy hallway. Is that Valak or just a nun going about her business? Unfortunately, director Corin Hardy doesn’t use that imagery to build any real tension, resulting in the biggest sin a horror movie can commit: It’s just not scary.
The Curse of La Llorona (2019)
Two horror films on the legend of La Llorona, the “weeping woman” from Mexican folklore who drowned her children in a jealous rage after discovering her husband’s affair, were released in 2019. One of them was a slow-burn, atmospheric meditation on the Guatemalan genocide that now sits in the Criterion Collection. The other was a slight-but-somehow-also-ham-fisted movie about a social worker named Anna (Linda Cardellini) who inadvertently allows a client’s children to be killed by La Llorona, an evil spirit who then comes after Anna’s family because of a bargain the mother made to swap Anna’s kids for her own. This one is the latter.
The social politics of these movies have never been great — the real-life Warrens were, by all accounts, pretty shitty people and not the gorgeous, benevolent forces portrayed by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson — but that’s easily dismissed in the name of movie magic. Building a story around a white family using a curandero to fend off a grieving Mexican mother on welfare is a pretty bad look. At least La Llorona is scary.
It’s a testament to the charisma of Patrick and Vera that the Conjuring Universe became the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time after this dud of a spinoff. There are a few fun scares (one particular set piece uses a familiar Wan trick of hiding jump scares behind swinging doors that is effective if a tad derivative) but Annabelle is bogged down by a postpartum anxiety metaphor that’s trying and failing to be a Rosemary’s Baby homage. The Conjuring has a ’70s supernatural-horror vibe so it makes some sense that the follow-up would go for a throwback as well. But where Wan borrows techniques from films like The Exorcist and Poltergeist to create his own style, director John R. Leonetti (Wan’s cinematographer since 2007’s Dead Silence) doesn’t bring any new ideas to the table, simply leaving you wishing you were watching a better movie.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)
If there’s one thing this franchise loves, it’s putting Vera Farmiga in a ruffled blouse. If there’s one other thing this franchise loves, it’s referencing ’70s horror. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It does both in spades. The 2021 film, which opens with a direct homage to The Exorcist, is based on the 1982 trial of Arne Johnson, who was the first person in the U.S. to claim demonic possession as a defense. As the only entry in the main Conjuring series not to be directed by Wan, it’s the weakest of the three, but director Michael Chaves has a lot more to work with here than he did in The Curse of La Llorona.
Namely, Ed and Lorraine are here! The supernatural power of their chemistry casts a warm glow over everything around them, which is the key element to what makes the series work. Their love is presented as a talisman against the forces of evil, which The Devil Made Me Do It makes explicit in heavy-handed dialogue. It’s cheesy, but Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga sell it so well, with her stoic fragility playing off his gentle strength, that it still rings true.
The Nun 2 (2023)
Blessedly, the follow-up to The Nun improves on the original in every way. At its best, the Conjuring series plays like a sexy, Catholic Supernatural; paranormal investigators look into reported demonic activity and eventually defeat the evil. It’s formulaic, but the formula works! The Nun 2 returns to that formula — Sister Irene is tasked with looking into a string of suicides that seem to be the handiwork of Valak — with a much better sense of pacing and tone than its predecessor. Where The Nun suffered from a complete and utter lack of tension, director Michael Chaves uses some classic horror standbys to build suspense. He holds on closed doors, slices through darkness with a flashlight beam, and there’s a particularly fun bit of business with a magazine stand which was shown in the trailer. His kills are also a bit more splatter-y than this franchise tends to get. It all works to make The Nun 2 scarier and, just as crucially, funner! A joke and a scare can serve the same purpose — punctuating tension — and the weaker entries in the franchise skip over its humor entirely.
However, The Nun 2 suffers from a dilemma befalling many a midquel: It’s boxed in by canon. The audience knows that Maurice will be possessed by Valak at least until he comes into contact with Ed and Lorraine. That dramatic irony works in Chaves’s favor when it comes to pulling off scares early in the film, but the ending doesn’t engage with that contradiction at all. The Conjuring films often have a final shot that indicates the evil is never really dead. But here, when it would make the most sense to do so, we get no such reveal. It’s a strange choice that makes it seem like the screenwriters just didn’t know what to do with the Conjuring Universe’s increasingly elaborate storylines.
Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
This directorial debut of screenwriter Gary Dauberman comes closest to emulating James Wan’s style. It’s also the movie outside of the main Conjuring series that features the most Ed and Lorraine. (Patrick Wilson wears a little party hat, which automatically knocks it up a ranking.) Both of those elements make Annabelle Comes Home one of the strongest spinoffs in the franchise. Dauberman, who also wrote the script, is playing in the subgenre of babysitter horror a la Halloween or When a Stranger Calls. Ed and Lorraine are called to investigate a haunting, leaving their daughter, Judy, at home with her babysitter, Mary Ellen. While they’re away, Mary Ellen’s friend accidentally releases the demonic Annabelle in an attempt to contact her dead father. The three of them — plus Mary Ellen’s crush Bob — are then tormented by the spirits raised by Annabelle.
The best scenes in the movie are obviously Dauberman’s horror set-pieces, which feel like Wan ideas (complimentary). A spinning color wheel shows creepy shadows growing and moving across Judy’s bedroom wall. A TV seems to show events happening a few seconds in the future. One scene, featuring a ghost with silver dollars over its eyes, is nearly as good as the hide-and-clap scene in The Conjuring. The actors are all charming enough to get us through the necessary dialogue until we get to the next scare. Plus, did I mention Patrick Wilson wears a little party hat?
Annabelle: Creation (2017)
Following in this franchise’s now-established tradition of the sequel being better than the original, Annabelle: Creation has the most defined style of the non-Wan films. It’s directed by David F. Sandberg, who is best known for the “Lights Out” short that terrified everyone who was on Facebook in 2014. (He later adapted it into a feature.) Sandberg takes this film a little grungier than the rest of the franchise, which matches the 1950s dust bowl setting. The film opens with a technique used to great effect in more prestige-y horror movies like The Quiet Place and Hereditary: the sudden death of a child. It’s effectively shocking, and sets a grim tone for the rest of the film, which takes place several years later when the girl’s father opens his home to a group of displaced orphans. Naturally, the orphans start being tormented by a demon, who was summoned after the girl’s parents prayed to whatever entity would bring their daughter back. (If you haven’t guessed by now, her name was Annabelle and the demon possessed one of her dolls.)
The “Lights Out” short made clear that Sandberg is very good at long, drawn-out scares. He uses those tricks throughout Annabelle: Creation, including one very creepy scene in which two girls hide under a blanket fort while a presence draws closer to them. Another set piece involving a malfunctioning chair lift is excruciatingly tense. Without Ed and Lorraine as our emotional anchor, though, there isn’t much to care about between the scares.
The Conjuring (2013)
The first film in the Conjuring Universe does an incredible job of introducing us to (the movie version of) the Warrens and their whole deal. It opens on the Annabelle case, with Ed and Lorraine explaining to some terrified roommates that the doll is possessed by a demon and extremely dangerous. Right away we see how seriously they take their work, but also how well they play off of each other. They’re charming, gracious, and beautiful. It’s no wonder that everyone, both onscreen and off, wants to hear them talk about demons!
The Perron family certainly wants to hear what they have to say, and they ask the Warrens to investigate their farmhouse, where they have been experiencing unexplained phenomena. Wan teases out those scares slowly, with a meandering handheld camera that lulls us into feeling like we’re just hanging out with the family. He shows Ed checking out the house’s framework and pipes, explaining that sometimes there are perfectly rational explanations for the things that go bump in the night. When the scares do hit, they’re perfectly calibrated. The hide-and-clap scene is probably the most iconic image in the franchise, and for good reason. It’s built up so well, with little moments of relief that ratchet right back up again.
But what makes The Conjuring perhaps the tightest film in the franchise is how it fits together thematically. The Warrens are, ultimately, tragic heroes, who see in the Perrons a life they want but cannot have because of their calling. Leaving their daughter and risking their lives to protect others isn’t an easy job, the movie posits, but someone’s gotta do it.
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The Conjuring ends by teasing the Warrens’ most famous case, the Amityville Horror, but The Conjuring 2 smartly doesn’t focus on that. We’ve already covered that case extensively, with over 20 increasingly ridiculous takes on the story set to film. Instead, The Conjuring 2 opens on that case much like The Conjuring did, with Annabelle. It’s a phenomenal scene, with Lorraine Warren walking through the house in a trance, acting out the brutal murders with an invisible shotgun. (This technique was used again, to lesser effect, in The Devil Made Me Do It.) The bulk of the action, however, concerns a lesser-known Warren haunting, which gives Wan more room for interpretation and surprise.
The sequel doubles down on everything that worked about The Conjuring. Ed and Lorraine are the beautiful, tragic saviors of a terrified family confronted with a deep evil, strengthened by the power of their love for each other. This time the devil’s in the U.K., and children and ghosts are both scarier and funnier with British accents. Wan’s eye for spooky set pieces is even sharper here; The Conjuring 2 boasts the most chilling scene in the franchise. When the spirit of an old man possessing a little girl makes everyone turn around before he’ll talk to them, Wan focuses his lens on Patrick Wilson’s face. He calmly asks questions while over his shoulder, just out of focus, the girl’s face contorts into a mask of contempt as the ghost speaks through her. Once it’s done, the girl spits out the water she’d been holding in her mouth. It’s a less memeable scene than hide-and-clap, but it’s a more apt symbol for the franchise in the way it illustrates the sinister banality of evil in the Conjuring Universe. The devil has rules, but they don’t make any sort of sense. Ed and Lorraine are our guides to that twisted code, and we couldn’t do it without them.