Since I only recently (over the last few years) became interested in horror movies, I can’t call my experience with them extensive. Nevertheless, of all I have watched, few have stood out quite so much as The Conjuring and its successors. Everyone, of course, has their own standards for a “good” movie, and for what constitutes an effective entry in any given genre — and this series, to me, represents perfection as far as horror movie franchises are concerned.
The first horror movie I watched all the way through in my adult life was Jeepers Creepers, and at the time it flat-out terrified me. I had to turn on something light and cheerful (usually The Muppet Movie) every night when I went to bed, in order to stave off debilitating fear, for a couple of weeks after watching it. Looking back, I think it was a pretty terrible show, and I should probably rewatch it at some point to confirm, but it sure as hell scared me. However, since that time, I don’t recall feeling actual fear at any horror movie, well written or otherwise.
Which is why it was such a delightful surprise, watching The Conjuring, to experience agitation and nervousness. The buildup of tension was so overwhelming and precisely aimed that every door that opened on its own (such a simple device) made me jump a little. The characters’ fear was palpable and justifiable, and drew me in to the point where I might have been hand-in-hand with them — vulnerable, chillingly aware of the unknown behind my back and the incontestable, incomprehensible threat ahead.
I expand my descriptions here to fit the entire series. The characters, as I implied above, awaken a visceral empathy, and they do this by means of the writing that humanizes them. It’s true that much of their characterization is situational, and I can’t say I “know” them all or could determine how they would behave under normal circumstances… but within those situations, their actions and reactions are believable; and the films even manage to avoid the trope of characters tossing the idiot ball around so the writers don’t have to work very hard to get them into scary circumstances.
Because these movies are rife with scary circumstances that don’t need corners cut to obtain. Another excellent aspect of the filmmaking that contributes to this is the set design. Narrow hallways, an excess of doors, rooms open on various sides, and very strategically placed shadows — the surroundings are almost as much a character as the characters. And just as creepily possessed as some… maybe even creepier.
The series proves it’s not limited to intricate houses, though, with the departure from form in The Nun. Evoking a far more Gothic atmosphere reminiscent of many early horror films and a slew of literature, the setting of a convent in a half-ruined castle, ostensibly inhabited by terrified sisters, is just as chilling as the more everyday-life settings of the rest of the series. The Nun connects to the latter, visually, with one long enclosed corridor lined with uneven crosses and imperfectly lighted.
That’s not the only visual connection. These films don’t just tie together in story terms (the obvious baseline for calling them a series, and very cleverly accomplished in itself), but through similar camerawork and imagery. Subtle moments when the characters miss the shadowy figure in the background or the sinister forecast provided by some object or behavior (often a Chekov’s Gun) create a sense of helpless concern for the people in the story; whereas more overt moments when the characters come face-to-face with and are threatened by the horror elements evoke that aforementioned frightened empathy. This interweaving of fear on behalf of others and fear on behalf of self is consistent throughout the series.
And those overt moments! Another really shining aspect of these films! Each movie has at least one (usually more) brilliantly timed and creatively creepy standout scare. I can’t speak to whether any of these are lifted from older horror movies, because I personally was surprised and delighted by all of them. At the risk of running on, I just have to name them, and thoughts that come up with them.
In The Conjuring — Holy shit, that clapping game. The instant the kids innocently started playing it at the beginning, I felt a deep shudder of anticipation. When Carolyn thinks she’s found April while playing it later, and requests the third clap, and then deathly pale hands come out of the wardrobe too high up for any child, it gave me goosebumps. I’m getting a little jumpy just writing about it.
Also in The Conjuring — A rapid sequence of events in the cellar: a ball comes bouncing out from nowhere; a musical sting; Carolyn scrambles up the stairs, screaming; the light bulb explodes; a child’s laughter; dead silence as Carolyn lights two matches in succession; a ghostly voice; the second match goes out just as another pair of ghoulish hands claps right beside Carolyn’s ear: a string of emotional punches flawlessly timed.
As the first movie in the series, I think The Conjuring had some awkwardness and weird moments that were smoothed out in later films. Nothing deal-breaking; just some choices the creators seemed to rethink for future installments. For example, the dog dies in The Conjuring — I was only able to watch the movie in the first place because some kind soul on doesthedogdie.com (a site I swear by) gave the exact timestamps for those that wanted to skip the scene where April finds the body. But in all subsequent movies, though dogs are sometimes featured, they never die. I sincerely hope that trend continues.
In Annabelle — One thing these movies all do particularly well is telegraphing creepy moments or jumpscares that then don’t happen. The doll being used by a external demonic presence, rather than itself possessed, sets up a number of shots in which the viewer expects anthropomorphized movement that doesn’t take place. This subversion of expectation, this indication that what’s going on is beyond our understanding at first, makes simple still shots of the doll more than unsettling. (I mean, it helps that the doll is hideous and disturbing just to look at.)
Also in Annabelle — The entire scene in the basement and the ensuing chase up the stairs. I was on the edge of my seat for this one. The bloody cloth in the baby carriage, the elevator refusing to rise, the brief glimpses of the demon — it was all so tense. Stairwells are naturally creepy in real life; and haven’t we all moved up stairs with unnecessary haste with the unnerving feeling something was following behind?
Also also in Annabelle — That moment when Mia starts pounding the doll’s head against the crib so hard the latter is dented. I watched several of these movies out of order, and by this time I’d noticed that the main characters tend to survive, so I didn’t fear for Leah’s life. But I knew Mia was going to be tricked by the demon into thinking she’d just horribly murdered her own baby, and that, when it came, was devastating. I’ve often considered the blurring of the distinction between fear and horror in so-called horror movies. (That and the weird equation of gore with horror.) At this point in this film, I felt real horror — revulsion and despair, and a deep sense of wrongness.
And as for main characters surviving: I love it. This series proves that a ton of gore and death isn’t required to create a frightening, horrifying story. (It reminds me a little of Van Canto, a musical group that proves you can have metal without electric guitars.) Having a core cast that survives each movie (even if some of them are peripheral), rather than a final girl that just happens to keep getting dragged back for irrelevant sequel after idiotic sequel, gives the series a strong cohesive thread, allows for cumulative characterization and personal story arcs, and builds the universe organically.
In The Conjuring 2 — Lorraine’s vision of the demonic nun figure and its portrait in the study. A shadows moves around the walls of the room with an unsettling inevitability until it turns to face her behind the painting, which then rushes toward her, screaming, half painting and half corporeal figure. Kudos to a nice subtle touch as well: the other painting in the room taking on the aspect of the house from the previous film seen from the pier so the tree with the noose is framing it — a painting that is shown in another scene to be a pleasant daylit landscape including a comfortable-looking home.
Also in The Conjuring 2 — The fucking Crooked Man. I cannot even. The Crooked Man is probably my all-time favorite horror movie monster. The scene where he stalks through the Nottingham house chanting in a demonic voice, too big to fit through the doorway without stooping, just makes me want to scream with delight and terror. The special effects when we see him clearly may not be the best, but not only do I totally forgive that because of his amazing design, I also think that, once he’s in shadow, the CG ceases to be awkward at all. And that he was disguised as the dog at first?? These movies all make brilliant use of bone-cracking sounds to indicate possession or demonic presence. Oh, and later, when Ed is blinded by the steam and we see the Crooked Man in the shadows in passing but Ed doesn’t??? I am absolutely ecstatic that the Crooked Man is going to have his own movie.
Honorable mention in The Conjuring 2 goes to that fire truck and that horrible tent.
Non-scary moments I loved in The Conjuring 2 (that exist throughout the series) are those that give the viewer a sense of comfort and family. Not only are these valuable as contrast that makes the creepy parts even creepier, they’re sweet and enjoyable in themselves — and they demonstrate how much the Warrens care about each other and the people they help. According to Wikipedia, a skeptic investigating the real-life Warrens said they were “a very nice couple, some genuinely sincere people” — and that’s clearly demonstrated in their fictional counterparts. I’ve really come to love them.
Something I enjoy specifically in The Conjuring 2 with the police and the Nottinghams, but also in the other films, is the lack of instancing. You know instancing in an MMO? It’s a fun device in a lot of horror movies, but sometimes it gets a little tiresome. And I like that it doesn’t apply in the Conjuringverse: people other than those involved see the supernatural events. Yes, some events, especially early in the story, are experienced only by certain characters… but eventually it’s clear to everyone around that something inhuman is going on. It ties in well with the lack of the tired and infuriating horror movie character, the asshole husband or other male figure that doesn’t believe the oppressed woman (and often, once he’s convinced, blames her and/or tries to tackle the situation aggressively, arrogantly, and ineptly).
In Annabelle: Creation — This was the first movie I watched in the series, and I thought it was just OK. I’m glad now, because I still think it’s just OK, and that would have been a big letdown after the excellent first three installments. I am very interested, though, in the running theme of car accidents in the series. It never focuses on the events themselves — in fact lil Bee getting hit by a car is the only one we even see — but rather on the effects they have on the survivors.
The Cabin in the Woods agrees with a popular opinion I’ve seen voiced in other contexts: that in a horror scenario, the participants need to be punished for wrongdoing. And it’s interesting to note that those most prominently punished in the Conjuringverse — Sam and Esther Mullins, Patricia Alvarez, Father Kastner, etc. — are either guilty of actual wrongdoing or are the direct casualties of those that are. Those that suffer lesser punishments tend to be the ones that make poor decisions, often based in a sense of guilt that may or may not be justified, or the entirely innocent that get sucked into the scenario by them. No one dies as a direct result of a minor infraction or a mere poor decision made in a moment of panic or desperation.
I hugely appreciate this. These stories aren’t the type where a bunch of college students do stupid shit and then you laugh when they get killed. These stories are about conflicts between good and evil, and because there is actual conflict involved — because both sides have a fighting chance — punishment in a narrative sense is doled out more reasonably and realistically.
On that note, I have to mention something I dislike about a lot of horror movies (but have come to wearily accept because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to watch most of them). There’s often a supernatural evil, whether that’s a monster, a horde of zombies, a demon, the tooth fairy, or what-have-you, which oppresses the human characters. But there’s a striking lack of a supernatural good. There is no conflict; there is no fighting chance. ZG says this represents humanity’s hopelessness in the face of monumental powers against which there is no possible defense — the government, for example, or cis-het white men (kidding. sortof). I agree with her! And I think that feeling of helplessness is where the desire to see sinners punished comes from.
I find that problematic, however. For one thing, that leaves it up to the writers of any given movie to decide arbitrarily what constitutes wrongdoing — particularly wrongdoing that merits hideous death — and so many of them tend to fall back on very primitive ideas in order to speak to the basic brainwashing of our society: being sexually active is evil, especially if you’re a woman; queerness is evil; mental illness is evil; being a person of color is evil, and so on. These are standards I won’t submit to, which is why films like Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy are so refreshing. The Conjuring Universe doesn’t feature many major characters of color, but at least the secondary ones aren’t offered up on the altar of white purity survival.
Another thing I dislike about the lack of supernatural good is that it often feels like lazy writing. An unbeatable supernatural character in a video game or roleplaying game would instantly be considered overpowered, and would make the game less fun or even intolerable. So too in storytelling. There’s a reason Superman is constantly getting depowered or pitted against alien forces strong enough to offer him a challenge — because he’s boring otherwise. His writers knew this: kryptonite was introduced only five years after Superman’s debut. Nobody wants to experience a story about an unbeatable hero, so how is an unbeatable villain any better?
I do make exceptions — when the supernatural evil can be interpreted as a symbol of something more meaningful than a guy in a rubber suit; when the film is otherwise beautiful in its creation; when the story is a retelling of another with a foregone conclusion. But if the metaphor is too full of holes, or the interpretation can only be seen by someone dedicatedly searching out signs; if the beauty of the creation comes at the expense of any real storytelling; if the foregone conclusion is only appreciable by a tiny fraction of the audience that happens to know the story it’s based on… I bring down my gavel.
(Not that I don’t enjoy watching terrible horror movies too. That’s the majority of them, I feel, and my enjoyment there is based in another set of characteristics entirely.)
So another thing I love about the Conjuring Universe is that it’s a struggle between the demons or other entities and the spiritual figures or their allies. The playing field may not be level, but the stakes actually seem higher when you know the protagonists have a chance at success, because that avoids the Learned Helplessness that attends the alternative. The conflict between good and evil is another primitive idea, as is the concept of good always triumphing — but this one I don’t mind so much. Even the Christianity, despite my personal lack thereof, makes for an intriguing basis of power to be used against the unholy. In fact I tend to see both as fantasy elements, and become as engrossed in their ongoing battle as I ever do in stories more overtly fantastical.
Which brings me back to what I was supposedly talking about before: great moments in Annabelle: Creation. The first is the stairlift moving up toward a second floor engulfed in darkness, despite Janice’s best efforts. The second is the scarecrow, at an elevation it shouldn’t be able to reach, crushing the light bulb in its hand. I think this is one of the less awesome films in this series, and part of that is the quantity and quality of standout moments. I still like it, obvs, but mostly for the story elements that tie it into the rest of the series (like the phantom nun in Sister Charlotte’s photo, and Janice becoming Annabelle at the end).
Then there’s The Nun. I think in some ways this is the most chilling entry in the series, largely because of the otherworldly Gothic effect I mentioned earlier. The sets lend themselves so well to creepy happenings, with the monastery giving the feeling of probing new and uniquely intense depths (literally and figuratively) of horror and evil. The discovery that the evil is trapped inside the monastery by a wall of faith maintained by the devoted sisters, and that those sisters are every one of them dead, evokes a special kind of dread. In the other films, it’s a possessed person or the encroachment of a supernatural evil that’s the enemy; here, the entire castle may be considered haunted.
In some ways it’s also, I think, the most badass entry in the series. Sister Irene’s visionary nature, her rescue of Father Burke literally from the grave, her indomitable force of will as she prays while a demon physically flays her, her resolution to take her vows under the most terrifying and demoralizing of circumstances, her spiritual strength that allows her to take in the blood of Christ (and her quick thinking that leads her to do so and use the reliquary against Valak) — she’s such a powerful character, who suffers fear and pain and oppression but rises above it all. I really love her.
Also in The Nun — The safety coffins/grave bells were a marvelous Chekov’s Gun, another instance of shivers taking hold of me at just seeing them the first time. The buried-alive scene was so effective, too. I’m not claustrophobic, but I imagine it’s doubly, triply effective to anyone that is; the scratching at the coffin and the eventual ghoulish hands that break in are already frightening enough!
Also also in The Nun — Sister Irene’s flight down the underground passage lined with crosses is fucking terrifying. And any time the demon nun can just barely be made out moving up a hallway as the lights, keeping just ahead of the figure, extinguish one by one. Damn. So scary.
Last of all in The Nun — Frenchie making his way through the room full of still figures in the form of nuns with their faces veiled, some of whom turn toward him as he passes. It’s like playing a terrifying game of Operation, where if you lose you get eternal damnation, and if you win you get a Twizzler.
It’s a point of interest for me that there are a few suicides in this series, and that they’re all described as (or implied to be) sacrifices. Bathsheba hanged herself, after murdering her baby, as a sacrifice to Satan, thereby placing a virulent curse on her land. Evelyn sacrifices her life and her soul both to save the Forms and as a perceived penance for involving her daughter in a deadly car accident. Sister Victoria sacrifices her life in order to prevent Valak from possessing her. The latter two circumstances are looked on with pity, and even subtly lauded by the narrative, but it’s unclear whether either of them is considered saved in the eyes of God. Arne Johnson is pushed by demonic influence almost to the point of suicide, which is his case would have resulted in Isla drawing one step closer to the completion of her curse. That the suicide of each is instrumental to the story, but (in two instances) considered a selfless sacrifice while remaining ambiguous in relation to the spiritual consequences, is an interesting device. I wish some practicing Catholic would go through this series point by point and offer some insight.
In The Curse of La Llorona — Though this is, I think, the weakest film in the series, there are still a few really good moments. The opening of different windows in the car, giving the feeling of being attacked from all sides and unable to guard all the points of entry, is terrifying. Sam viewing La Llorona briefly only through her clear umbrella is brilliant. And the scene where she reaches out the door to retrieve her doll, where the foreboding music of moments before fades out entirely into an oppressive silence, is nail-bitingly tense.
As a comment on the fears and the dangers of parenthood, I do find The Curse of La Llorona intriguing. Every human being is in danger every moment of their lives; the human body is so fragile, and the world is so cruel. Any of us could die at any time by accident, murder, bodily failure of one kind or another, or psychological conditions that lead to self-destruction. But that doesn’t feel as real, I think, to non-parents. To a parent, that awareness of the sword hanging above each of us by a hair is acutely painful and ever present. And I think this fear, this awareness of danger, is masterfully represented by the events in this film where two mothers seek to protect their children from forces beyond their control.
In Annabelle Comes Home — The buildup of tension with the trail of rolling coins and the dead figures Mary Ellen doesn’t notice, culminating in the frightening sight of two round glints of light in a dark doorway positioned just below the lintel as if covering the eyes of an unnaturally tall figure. This movie is full of good moments:
Every instant spent in the artifact room had me trembling, especially when Daniela is looking into the TV that’s perfectly silent and just a couple of seconds ahead of real life. The atmosphere of those scenes is simply a work of genius.
That fucking Feeley Meeley game. Probably the scariest of all the Chekov’s Guns in the series. I was appalled to learn, after watching this movie, that it’s an actual existing game that actually has that incredibly creepy name. I’m glad it’s not a modern game, because I would jump out of my skin every time I saw it in real life.
The samurai armor randomly standing in the downstairs hallway, and the screaming voices begging not to be killed that grow louder as Mary Ellen approaches it. As she sidles past, when the helmet slowly swivels to follow her, and she seems almost entranced by it — just… so scary… *chef’s kiss*
Not all ghosts are bad. And I love how Judy, though not at the same level as her parents, is spiritually strong enough to stave off the evil spirits long enough for the three young ladies to get the doll back into its holy case.
I’d also like to mention something I appreciate in multiple movies in the series: whenever we see a demon in a demon’s shape (rather than masquerading as something else), it’s shown either only in brief glimpses or with unsettling, jerky, inhuman movements thanks (apparently) to frames being removed from its footage in a technique that I’m sure has a name. This prevents the demons from becoming just dudes in rubber suits, keeping them freshly frightening by keeping the viewer off balance.
In The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It — Creepy evil fingers blending in with shower curtain rings. The demonic figure inside the waterbed mattress, which changed the reminder that waterbeds exist from nostalgic to terrifying (though their maintenance always did make them a special horror in their own right). The tense, musicless scene in the funeral home where you just know at least one corpse is going to get up and attack. I’m not a fan of zombies in a lot of contexts, and don’t watch zombie-centric horror movies, but in this case I gave it a pass because it’s a single zombie used to excellent effect.
I appreciate their establishing Bruno as such an asshole before he gets murdered. Despite liking everyone to survive, and despite thinking the punishment for wrongdoing is disproportionate in so many horror stories, I’m much less disturbed when a murder victim seems to be a horrible person than otherwise. But, geez, the murder of Katie is so hard to watch. Two young ladies that seem like such sweet lesbians…
I’ve probably mentioned it before in reference to some other movie, but I just love it when there are rats in a film. No matter how scary or wild they’re supposed to be, they’re always the cleanest, sleekest, fattest, cutest pet store rats you can imagine XD
Isla the witch uses matches from a box labeled “Kitchen Matches,” such as you might purchase from a drug store, to light her black candles. Typically I consider the idea of witches a positive one — I’m a bit of a witch myself — but even with the witch portrayed negatively here, I enjoyed that touch of mundane realism.
I’m also curious about the designations of the possessed/murderers in this story — the child, the lover, and the man of God. David was originally intended to be the child. And since Jessica was obviously not a man of God, that can only make her the lover. Which seems to confirm my somewhat flippant remark above about sweet lesbians. It’s the only interpretation of the arrangement of curse victims that makes sense. And that makes the murder of Katie that much more miserable. No wonder Jessica ran off a cliff.
So in case I haven’t made myself clear yet, I love this series. The Cabin in the Woods may always be my favorite standalone horror movie, because of the brilliant complexity of its storytelling, but the Conjuring Universe is by far my favorite horror movie franchise. I’m so attached to the characters, as well as the world they inhabit, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here. I eagerly look forward to future installments, to the point where I might actually drag myself out to a theater at some point.
Well, probably not. Movie theaters are an entirely different brand of horror XD