The Conjuring Universe is a stroke of genius that does not get the credit it deserves. Not everyone loves these movies as much as I do, so this is already a skewed opinion. I will get back to that point again. These may not be universally praised, constantly talked about superhero movies, but the minds behind the movies deserve a lot of credit for creating the seamless, cinematic universe that they have.
For all intents and purposes, Peter Safran and James Wan are primary architects of the franchise. Safran is the main producer alongside Wan. Wan directed the first step into the franchise in 2013 with The Conjuring. It opened to positive reviews and ended its run as a definite box-office success. It was a movie that focused on atmosphere and using haunted house movie tropes and jump scares to near perfection. It established a very specific, and I would say (somehow,) warm aesthetic. The Conjuring established a strong foundation for what would eventually become one of the stronger cinematic universes so far.
The next entry is Annabelle. I hate this film. It sucks. The acting is awful. The story is… basic. The execution of it is respectable and they take some risks, but overall the movie just doesn't hit on any cylinder. It is very clearly supposed to be The Conjuring, but also not The Conjuring. The movie takes many cues from Rosemary's Baby and it mixed the haunted house movie with a cult/ritualistic thriller. This was an important film in the franchise. It was only the second movie made and it was not a direct sequel or prequel. It is a prequel, but is a spin-off. It confirmed the interest in the possible franchise and opened up the door further for different directors to come in and make their mark on James Wan's initial vision. It made a great profit. It didn't get the warmest reviews overall, but it did well enough. The Annabelle doll was a big hit in it's small role in The Conjuring and it still had a lot of steam at this point, so that helped. So, that was our first variation in The Conjuring Universe.
The Conjuring 2 was next up to bat, James Wan's last directing gig in this franchise. The movie is my favorite in the franchise. It is still, to this day, scary as hell. Patrick Wilson and Vera Fermiga really care about these characters and really played their parts well. The Hodson's are a respectable, rag-tag bunch. Wan really went all out in this movie and Safran confirmed this in interviews last year. Wan laid everything on the table with this movie in terms of jumpscares, haunted house movies, and all that he did with The Conjuring originally. He made his piece and wanted to move on to other things. He went on to direct Aquaman and is finishing work on his next movie, Malignant, a different kind of horror movie. Wan is still a hands-on producer and writer on these movies. So, this was another important moment in the franchise. The last Want movie. It proved that they could retread the same idea, demon haunts family, Warrens come save them. No genre mixing or anything super different about it and the original. They did that and still just kept printing money basically.
Then we had Annabelle: Creation. General audiences were already beginning to get tired of The Conjuring Universe. The movies were popular and liked enough, but people were starting to gang up on and trash the movies for only being jump scares. They were absolutely and unequivocally wrong about that and don't realize that jump scare (when done right, no matter how many are in the movie) are effective and respectable. But I digress. Annabelle: Creation was a confirmation of The Conjuring 2's confirmation. That another basic haunted house movie will bring in the money. The movie was met with pretty great reviews and made its money. Director David F. Sandberg got his first franchise gig (after doing the feature adaptation of his YouTube short, Lights Out. Wan produced that) and he got deserved credit for bringing one of the scariest movies of the franchise to life. This movie also continued Gary Dauberman's rise to power. Dauberman had, so far, written Annabelle, IT, The Nun, IT Chapter 2, and Annabelle Comes Home. He has some hits and misses in terms of quality, but every single movie has been more or less a hit. Creation was a sort of crux of this franchise. It once again proved the strength of it.
Creation was followed up with the best box-office hit of the franchise, The Nun. The titular entity, Valak, a demon that manifests itself (mostly) as a Nun. Valak was the villain of The Conjuring 2 and while the producers thought another villain from the movie, The Crooked Man, was their next spin-off movie, the fans provided them another route. They tapped Corrine Hardy to bring a Gothic and historical aesthetic to the franchise's haunted house movie plots. Dauberman was also trusted to bring the goods. They certainly had a lot of momentum leading up to release and it made money, but it was pretty much panned. The movie is scary in some moments and I'll be damned if it isn't one of the coolest movies I have ever seen. Still, it is really bad. It just feels bad at the bones. Story is lackluster, the director couldn't wrap his head around it, he couldn't direct some really good actors, the effects were shaky at times, and the movie had a distinct lack of tension. Why even make a horror movie if you can't get some sort of tension going? Still, The Nun is iconic. The movie also did what Creation did by having the ending tie directly into another entry in the franchise. The way the movie ended actually, as far as I saw, did not leak at all. It was a genuine and good surprise. So, a Gothic horror aesthetic on a haunted house, jump scare movie. That is our second true variation on the genre.
Then we received Annabelle Comes Home in 2019. Gary Dauberman was handed the keys to the car this time. He got to direct his own script. It was nice that one person who knows the mythology, timeline, etc., of the franchise had major work on all three Annabelle movies. It really makes this trilogy feel connected. All three movies are different visions and feel different, but they are still so cohesive and together. The movie is still technically just a haunted house movie, but it feels more distinctly like a dramedy movie. It is certainly the funniest movie in the franchise. It takes some cues from the style of Andy Muschietti's work on It and that kind of teen comedy aspect that is present there. The movie opts to stay away from scares for… over half of the movie. We spend a lot of time with the characters with minor or short lived scares leading up the the hour mark (in a movie that is 1 hour and 46 minutes long.) I admire those ideals and think it worked, even though I didn't love it. I do think it was absolutely nowhere close to as scary as the previous movies ('cept for Annabelle. That movie SUCKS.) I also recently realized that I don't like the score. Joseph Bishara is a genius and he has done so much great work, ESPECIALLY on The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. Those scores are so dark and oppressive, and weird. This time, he opted for a more restrained and just different score. To me, it betrays the tension. Even during scary parts, the score is too cute.
…Anyway, the movie continued to bring in dough for Warner Brothers. All of these movies are made on such a small budget, it's nearly impossible to not make money on them! It is one of the most lucrative horror/r-rated franchises ever. It made $1 billion at the box office after The Nun. The production budget for all of the movies combined (minus pay for the crew, marketing, etc.) is about $136 million. So, with other costs estimated, this movie has way more than doubled it's money spent. Comes Home was one of the softest box offices and most expensive productions so far, but it was a success financially and critically. It also provided the most obvious avenue for the franchise to last. Spin-offs. The Ferryman, Wedding Dress, and The Black Shuck were obviously the producers throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. They know that Ed and Lorraine can't go on forever. I anticipate that The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It will be the last main Conjuring movie. Annabelle 4 is basically confirmed and I also anticipate that to be the last movie in that franchise within a franchise. Although I think they have an interesting chance to feature The Warrens going up against Annabelle for real for the first time to truly close out their starring roles in this franchise.
So, we have two ol' faithfuls on the way, but it is clear that new haunting and creatures need to be injected into our eyeballs. I didn't think it was very scary, but the producers seem to really like The Wedding Dress gag. The Werewolf has been something James Wan really wanted to bring to the franchise for a long time, even teasing previously (before Comes Home was released) that it would feature in The Conjuring 3. I think The Ferryman is strongest creature, besides Annabelle and The Ram of course, in the film. Don't forget about the planned Crooked Man movie. So with those ideas alone and countless others that haven't been thought of, The Conjuring Universe is here to stay.
I will play my own devil's advocate here in my last point. I enjoy the ever-loving-shit out of this franchise. It can do no wrong. Except for Annabelle. That movie sucks. I don't get tired of the jump scares. I think it's okay that The Curse of La Llorona and The Nun are about as good as something I could write and direct (that's not necessarily saying much.) So what if Annabelle Comes Home is one of the least scariest movies of the franchise so far? I enjoy the aesthetic and heart of these films endlessly. So for the flaws in each one and the franchise as a whole, I still give it too much credit. I just want to acknowledge this because someone might be reading or listening to this right now and they might not agree with any single point and HATE these movies. That's okay. We're cool, I promise. We'll have dinner sometime. It's alright.
It is one of the few cinematic universes outside of The MCU that have truly succeeded recently. It has a (so far) small array of directors, writers, characters, and creatures that all feel genuine and scary at times. It makes money and keeps people interested. This is how you make a cinematic universe!