James Wan rules. He’s given us three of the best and most important contemporary horror franchises (Saw, Insidious, and the Conjuringverse). We wrote about Saw in a previous post. Wan also directed one of the best Fast and Furious movies (Furious 7), one of the only recent superhero movies we like (Aquaman), one of the better modern revenge movies (Death Sentence, with Kevin Bacon going full Charles Bronson), and another very solid doll horror movie (Dead Silence). That’s an impressive body of work. So here we are stanning James Wan.
Wan directed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and produced the rest of the movies in the franchise (working with a number of collaborators, including Leigh Whannell). The series is a little uneven, but the very best entries are exceptional and even the worst entries have redeeming qualities. This is some of the most accessible horror you will find us recommending at Strohltopia: generally mild enough for people who shy away from the genre but scary enough for horror fans.
The series is centered around Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are real life ghost hunters/demonologists/suspected scam artists. The fictionalized version of the couple is played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. She’s the tormented, gifted one who communes with spirits; he’s a sort of 50’s businessman-meets-religious zealot who takes the lead with both clients and the Catholic Church. The two Conjuring movies are the hubs that the other entries in the series branch off from. Both films are part of the “family in a captive space” haunting genre but feature all sorts of auxiliary menaces that open up spin-off possibilities.
Perhaps the most distinctive trope of James Wan’s empire of supernatural horror is that what initially appears to be a run-of-the-mill haunting is actually something far more malevolent. This runs through the Insidious series and most of the Conjuringverse. The Far More Malevolent trope is a big part of what makes these movies special. We get two levels of reveal and jump scare. First, there is the ordinary sort of haunting: banging sounds in the night and unexplained open doors escalate to grabbing and clawing and dragging. But once the Warrens are called in, they discover through paranormal sleuthing that this is no ghost: it’s a demon from hell, and it wants your child’s soul. The haunting phenomena are just a way of softening up the most vulnerable member of the family: the real endgame is demonic possession and/or soul devouring.
The films were released in following order:
The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
There are a lot of prequels in the mix, however, so the chronology of the stories is totally different:
The Nun (1952), Annabelle: Creation (1953), Annabelle (1967), The Conjuring (1971), Annabelle Comes Home (1972), The Curse of La Llorona (1973), The Conjuring 2 (1977)
We can see the merit of both viewing orders but we think release order is clearly the best way to watch these the first time around. Here’s the overarching structure connecting the series: The Conjuring introduces us to the Warrens and follows one of their cases from beginning to end. We learn that they have a room full of evil artifacts and the most malevolent of these artifacts is the Annabelle doll. Annabelle is a prequel to The Conjuring, where we get the story of what the Annabelle doll was up to prior to the events of The Conjuring. The Conjuring 2 brings the Warrens to London, where they work on a fictionalized version of the real life Enfield Poltergeist case. Lorraine struggles a great deal because when she uses her gift she is assailed by a demon in the guise of a nun. The nun’s origin story is the subject of (you guessed it) The Nun. We also meet a character in The Conjuring 2 named The Crooked Man, who will be the subject of another spin-off. Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to Annabelle (we love nested prequels!) and gives us Annabelle’s origin story. Annabelle Comes Home jumps back forwards and takes place shortly after the events of The Conjuring in a single night when a very irresponsible friend of the Warrens’ babysitter lets Annabelle out of her case in the evil artifact room. We meet at least two other menaces in this movie that could potentially support further spin-offs: The Ferryman and The Black Shuck (a damn hellhound!). The Curse of La Llorona is the most tangential entry and is connected to the other movies only by the relatively brief appearance of Father Perez (Tony Amendola), a main character in Annabelle. In a deleted scene, La Llorona’s necklace ends up in the Warrens’ artifact room, so there’s some chance there could be further tie-ins.
One of our favorite things about these movies is the music. Most of the Conjuringverse and Insidious tetralogy scores were done by Joseph Bishara (who appears in the Insidious series as the Lipstick-Face Demon) and they are incredible. Check out this short track titled “Black Bile” from The Conjuring, featuring Diamanda Galás:
Or this violin hellscape from Insidious:
The Nun does not feature work from Bishara but has an excellent score from Abel Korzeniowski featuring more ominous chanting and droning synthesizer:
Matt and Josh agreed on these rankings. It reflects some degree of compromise but we are both happy with it.
7) The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves)
Linda Cardellini plays a social worker who interferes with a mother of Mexican descent who is trying to save her child from dark spirits through folk practices that look awfully abusive out of context. She takes the haunting home with her and soon finds her own children threatened.
We love folk horror and we love the idea of a Conjuringverse movie based on Mexican folklore, but this is mostly a letdown. While we do think the commentary on child protective services is interesting, we really would have preferred a Latina protagonist over Linda Cardellini. Her generic white mom vibe waters down the cultural setting. The script is lazy, La Llorona herself is underwhelming, the CGI is lame, and the jump scares are mostly tepid. The haunting is too mundane. We really craved something Far More Malevolent. The best element of the movie is Raymond Cruz, the character actor who played Tuco on Breaking Bad. He usually plays a cartel guy, a cop, or a military guy. Here he plays a spiritual healer named Rafael Olvera. When the haunted family can’t get timely help from the Catholic Church, Father Perez recommends Olvera as a back-alley exorcist. Cruz really chews the scenery and it is delightful to see him deploy various Mexican folk remedies. We just wish it were a scarier movie.
6) Annabelle (Leonetti)
A young couple, John and Mia Forn, are expecting a baby. Mia collects dolls. John tracks down a rare vintage (creepy) doll for her collection. Shortly afterward, their neighbors are murdered by their estranged cult member daughter Annabelle and her boyfriend, who then try to attack John and Mia and end up getting some blood on the doll. Paranormal activities begin occurring. The movie becomes a sort of third rate Polanski-style paranoid apartment movie combined with a haunting movie.
A good haunting movie needs a steady crescendo of tension. The big problem with Annabelle, aside from the fact that it’s generally uninspired, is that it keeps breaking its own tension. There are too many temporary reprieves that disrupt the crescendo. It does have some very good jump scares, however, and we enjoy the late 60’s setting and the way cultural touchstones like the Manson family are deployed. The depiction of early parenthood is sometimes interesting: the movie laces the natural fears and anxieties of having a newborn with the intensity of Conjuringverse haunting. We appreciate the restraint it took not to animate the doll at all: it’s much scarier this way.
Also, we didn’t dock the movie for this, but we have beef with director John Leonetti, who insulted the great Tobe Hooper by claiming that Spielberg in fact directed Poltergeist. Anyone who knows anything about Tobe Hooper and has seen Poltergeist can tell it’s a Tobe Hooper movie. It also has some Speilbergian qualities, and the unlikely fusion is what makes it special.
5) Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman)
As soon as we see the evil artifact room in The Conjuring absolutely crammed with creepy trinkets, haunted board games and ominous samurai armor (!) we dread the day when someone without an appropriate sense of caution tromps around in there and unleashes a fleet of demons and ghosts. Annabelle Comes Home consummates this dread. The Warrens’ daughter Judy is left home with babysitter Mary Ellen, who invites her friend Daniela to join for the night. Daniela has lost her father in a tragic accident and is drawn to the evil artifact room and the promise it holds for contacting the dead. We sometimes enjoy an excess of foolishness from horror protagonists. It’s part of the grammar of certain subgenres. It’s nice to see a self-possessed protagonist put up a good fight in a horror movie, but it’s also fun to see someone do the most ill-advised possible thing at every juncture. Daniela makes us want to scream at the screen: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DANIELA! DO NOT TOUCH THAT! DO NOT OPEN THAT FUCKING CASE! ARE YOU KIDDING?! DO! NOT! OPEN! THE! ANNABELLE! CASE!”
We give the movie a mixed review. It is very fun. We like dark and serious horror and we like horror with heavy themes, but we also enjoy stupid ridiculous horror that doesn’t take itself seriously, and this is definitely that. Some very funny moments accrue from the slumber party scenario and the cute-but-clueless boy across the street’s attempts to woo Mary Ellen by ineptly serenading her from the lawn. The array of menaces we meet is fully delightful. But on the negative side this isn’t very scary, it has dull stretches, and it doesn’t have much bite. Given how brazenly Daniela taunts death, there are basically no consequences. Fans of the series will enjoy it, but it’s not a particularly great movie.
4) The Conjuring 2 (Wan)
The Enfield Poltergeist is one of the most famous suspected real world hauntings. The Conjuring 2 focuses a great deal on aspects of the situation that made it seem especially credible to many people (levitating children in front of police, etc) and also tries to explain away the eventual discovery that the whole thing was a hoax. In this heavily fictionalized version, the malevolent presence forces the child to pretend to be staging a hoax so that the Warrens and the church will stop interfering. At the same time, Lorraine is tormented by the demon Valak the Defiler in the form of a nun. It’s extremely treacherous for her to contact the spirit realm–it gives Valak a way in–but she also can’t bring herself to abandon the Hodgson family. This conflict is among of the most interesting elements of the movie, and it brings a great deal of depth to the character of Lorraine. We really like The Conjuring 2 overall. It is not as good as The Conjuring and it has the same problem that Annabelle has with breaking its tension and disrupting its crescendo, but it is properly terrifying, the jump scares are legit, and the Valak subplot is well-integrated.
3) The Nun (Hardy)
The setup is that a nun in an isolated convent in Romania has committed suicide and a priest travels to investigate along with a young nun-in-training (Taissa Farmiga) who is originally from the region. It turns out that the convent is the site of a gate to hell that the nuns have been struggling to contain. We learn how the demon Valak from The Conjuring 2 came to take the form of a nun.
This is a sharp stylistic departure from the rest of the series. It is an homage to two great horror traditions: Italian maximalism and Hammer Horror. The main Italian influence is clearly Fulci, but Bava’s gothic horror is also a point of reference alongside Hammer. This movie got pretty bad reviews from mainstream critics, which does not surprise us very much because most of these people don’t know a thing about Italian horror or Hammer and they don’t have the context to see what the movie is trying to do. But don’t be deterred: The Nun has many direct pleasures to offer for the open-minded. You have to be okay with maximalism, though, because this movie is stuffed to the gills. Every possible time there could be a jump scare, there’s a jump scare. The production design is absurd. I would wager a great deal that there have never been more crucifixes in a single movie. The last time I watched it (my sixth viewing) I resolved to count the crucifixes, but I gave up because there are several dozen in the first few minutes. The climax is at a fever pitch and it goes on for a looooong time. Screaming! Jumping out of the shadows! Opening a gaping chasm to hell! All the nuns praying at once to hold back the evil! The literal blood of Jesus! This movie throws the kitchen sink at you.
2) Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg)
Annabelle: Creation is a banger. Sandberg previously directed Lights Out (2016), which revealed that he has formidable chops. This is the origin story of the Annabelle doll and it mostly takes place 14 years before the events of Annabelle. Doll-maker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther lose their 7 year old daughter Annabelle in a tragic accident. 12 years later they invite a nun and six orphaned girls left homeless by the closing of an orphanage to live in their home. The whole situation is intensely creepy and there is one rule that we really hope none of the orphans will break: don’t go in Annabelle’s locked bedroom!
Alas, the rule is broken. We eventually learn of a dark pact the parents made in an effort to contact their daughter again which has invited something Far More Malevolent than the average ghost into the Annabelle doll. This movie is a tightly constructed piece of horror and it is terrifying. The jump scares will send you airborne. We love it. Even though Annabelle is pretty weak, it’s well worth watching to get to this. Play it as loud as possible with all the lights off.
1) The Conjuring (Wan)
The Conjuring is in many ways a very traditional haunting movie. It hits all of the expected narrative marks and the plot solution is pretty much standard. Where it really stands out is in its relentless intensity and bombastic craftsmanship. It’s a straight up modern horror classic. People will watch this movie for decades and it will continue to scare the shit out of everyone. It’s nearly universal in its appeal: Christians love it, Satanists love it, teenagers love it, our mom loves it. Sometimes the most popular thing really is the best.
Insidious predates The Conjuring. The first film was released in 2010, Chapter 2 was released in 2013, Chapter 3 was released in 2015, and The Last Key was released in 2018. Chronologically, the order is basically: Chapter 3, The Last Key, Insidious, Chapter 2, but the films also contain extensive flashbacks that make the timeline more complicated than this. There is a fifth movie coming.
Insidious is PG-13, which we are normally strongly against, but in this case it is in no way a problem. This is some terrifying PG-13 horror. Wan wanted to make a movie without gore as a response to critics of the Saw series who thought he had nothing to offer but blood and guts.
The center of the Insidious tetralogy is veteran actress Lin Shaye. She’s 74 years old and she’s a total badass. She’s played a lot of smaller roles over the years and it’s awesome to see a whole series built around her. She plays a powerful psychic named Elise Rainier who has a multi-generational connection to the Lambert family, the primary haunting/possession target in the first and second movies.
The other element that is distinctive of the series is The Further, which is the name given to the astral plane where the dead who have not passed on reside and where various demons and evil spirits who are trying to reach the living world get stuck. The production design of The Further is fantastic. Poltergeist is a clear point of reference but this is its own thing. It’s a black and desolate place, but it’s not empty. The sparseness of The Further makes the jump scares double plus effective. If you’re going to put an astral plane in your horror movie, it better be cool as hell and viscerally terrifying. And this certainly is.
The overall structure of the narrative goes like this: Insidious tells the story of the haunting and possession of Dalton Lambert. Dalton’s parents Josh and Renai are played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne (and so, alas, the Conjuringverse and the Insidiousverse don’t stand much of a chance of overlapping, since Patrick Wilson plays Ed Warren in The Conjuring). The grandma (Barbara Hershey!) calls in her demonologist/psychic friend Elise Rainier who works with a pair of ghosthunter lackeys, Specs and Tucker. It turns out that Elise had also been called in for a paranormal incident in Josh’s childhood. Dark secrets are revealed and tie in with Dalton’s predicament. I won’t say anything else but it rules so hard. Chapter 2 picks up directly from the end of Insidious and continues the story directly. Chapter 3 is a prequel, set several years before Insidious. It documents a previous case Elise worked on and also tells the story of how she came to team up with Specs and Tucker. The Last Key is about another case that occurs between Chapter 3 and Insidious. The case involves Elise’s childhood home and there’s a whole flashback narrative about her time living there.
4)Insidious 3 (Whannell)
Decent, but clearly the weakest entry. This is the first movie chronologically but Elise is already retired from demonology. She is drawn back in by a young woman named Quinn who has psychic gifts of her own. Despite Elise’s warnings, Quinn tries to contact her dead mother and ends up encountering a malevolent force. It’s not particularly scary compared to the rest of the series and it feels half-baked.
3) Insidious: Chapter 2 (Wan)
Chapter 2 is nuts, in a good way. We really can’t describe the movie at all with spoilers for part 1, so we’ll just say that Patrick Wilson is great and the movie is a hoot.
2) Insidious: The Last Key (Robitel)
This is by far the darkest movie out of both series. Drawn back to her childhood home in Five Keys, New Mexico by the resurfacing of a malevolent entity (Key Face!) that she previously encountered as a child, Elise confronts her horrifying past. We learn that Elise’s father was terribly abusive and tried to violently prevent her from using her abilities. But that’s just the beginning of the dark secrets that unravel in The Last Key. It’s a very disturbing movie that brings weight and depth to the series as a whole. We love it.
1) Insidious (Whannell)
“But there are other entities who are malevolent and have a more insidious agenda. And then there’s this… A demon who seeks Dalton’s body for one reason – to cause pain to others.”
Insidious is our personal favorite of the whole James Wan supernatural constellation. This is a movie that knows how scary empty space can be. It knows how to use sound and music to shape and intensify the audience’s emotional response. Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and Lynne Shay just slay in this. Turn the lights out, turn your phone off, and turn up the volume.