While it seems like Warner Bros. is finally turning a corner in its efforts to make the DC Extended Universe as well-received as its Marvel counterpart, the DCEU is not the only franchise the studio has been working on. After The Conjuring—James Wan’s horror film very loosely based on the exploits of real paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga—made more than $300 million off a $20 million budget in 2013, the seeds were planted for what’s become the Conjuring Cinematic Universe. (I haven’t seen the franchise abbreviated as the CCU, but let’s just roll with that because it sounds good, and also for the sake of expediency.)
Expanding the Conjuring-verse (see? CCU sounds way better) was a smart gambit by Warners. Superhero films are undoubtedly the current king of Hollywood, but the horror genre has been riding a wave of critical and commercial success in recent years thanks to films like Get Out, A Quiet Place, It, and Us. (Not to mention additional entries in the CCU, including a sequel, two spinoffs about a possessed doll named Annabelle, and a prequel about a demon nun who terrorizes the Warrens in the Conjuring sequel.) What works in horror movies’ favor is that they aren’t as reliant on giant, CGI-laden fights and skybeams, and can therefore be made on much smaller budgets. The most expensive Conjuring movie, The Conjuring 2, had a production cost of $40 million—that’s less than half of what it cost to make Shazam!. And while the CCU films aren’t shattering box office records, the first five entries have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide on a total production cost just north of $100 million. That’s simply good business.
With these Conjuring films making so much money, additional sequels and spinoffs are on the way. A third Annabelle film is arriving this summer; a sequel to The Nun has been green-lit; an additional spinoff called The Crooked Man, based on another ghoulish entity from The Conjuring 2, is being developed; and of course, The Conjuring 3 is set for 2020. But before all that, the sixth and least-heralded entry of the CCU arrives this weekend: The Curse of La Llorona.
La Llorona is the CCU film with the most tangential connection to the rest of the franchise. Following widowed social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (played by Linda Cardellini), who is raising two kids in Los Angeles, La Llorona focuses on the Mexican folklore of the “Weeping Woman”: the ghost of a woman who drowned her children in a river, and whose spirit now haunts and kills other kids. When Anna’s children are subjected to La Llorona’s terror, she enlists the help of a priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola), which is where the Conjuring tie-in comes in. Perez is the same priest who shows up in the first Annabelle movie, and he recalls to Anna his experience with the possessed doll—if that’s not enough of a hint, the screen briefly flashes Annabelle’s haunting face to remind you we’re in a shared universe. But what exactly connects these movies?
While there isn’t a Nick Fury–type character setting up an Avengers initiative with holy water and rosary beads, there are some common threads in the CCU that tie these films together, outside of a James Wan producer credit. You can identify a CCU movie pretty easily—so as long as you know what you’re looking for.
A Period Setting
Because the ultimate link to the Conjuring movies is the real-life Warrens, whose most noteworthy work as paranormal investigators was spread across the ’70s and ’80s—including the Perron family haunting, the Amityville murders, and the Enfield poltergeist, which are featured in the first two Conjuring films—the CCU has embraced period settings in all six of its films thus far. Both Conjuring movies, as well as La Llorona, are set in the ’70s, while the first Annabelle takes place in 1967, around the time the Warrens investigated a supposedly possessed Raggedy Ann doll. Annabelle: Creation, another spinoff explaining the origins of the demonic entity residing within the doll, takes viewers back to 1955, while The Nun is the earliest in the CCU timeline, following an exorcist and a novitiate in 1952 as they investigate the mysterious suicide of a nun in a remote Romanian abbey. (Obviously, this is also where the franchise moves away from the Warrens’ actual investigations and instead creates origin stories for its demonic villains.)
While the actual paranormal nature of the Warrens’ work should be taken with the heaviest dose of skepticism—to say nothing of the allegations that the late Ed Warren began a sexual relationship with a woman when she was 15, and that Lorraine was aware of the affair—but the period settings are an important framework since the CCU always circles back to its two protagonists in some way. (Wan has said he initially wanted to call the franchise The Warren Files, likening the process of expanding the Conjuring-verse to the work of a television showrunner.) And within these time periods, the Conjuring movies are also allowed to mess around with different horror tropes. Annabelle: Creation uses the dread of its isolated setting—a farmhouse in the middle of an endless sea of crops—to terrifying effect, while The Nun, with its abbey evoking medieval architecture in the middle of the woods, is a prime example of gothic horror.
The movies in the CCU aren’t necessarily defined by the eras they’re set in, but they do allow the franchise to mix up its scares in various settings—all of which would be nightmare scenarios to deal with, since nobody in any of these movies from the ’50s through the ’70s has any access to cellphones. Seriously, it feels like cell service would be life-changing for many of these poor, tormented people.
The Haunted, Easily Franchised Artifacts
Marvel has the Infinity Stones; the Warrens have a room full of haunted stuff. As the couple investigate their first on-screen case in The Conjuring, we are introduced to a room in their home full of objects that have been affected, in some sinister way, by the paranormal. That includes the creepy Annabelle doll, kept behind a glass case with a warning that reads: Positively Do Not Open. (Knowing what we know about Annabelle after two spinoffs and counting, this is solid advice.)
But the haunted artifacts in the room aren’t just spooky Conjuring window dressing, they’re the ideal launching point for spinoffs in the CCU. Annabelle started as a footnote in the first Conjuring movie, but the Annabelle films were born out of that doll having a really memorable cameo. (Same goes for Valak the demon nun, who terrorized Lorraine in The Conjuring 2 before becoming the subject of a spinoff.)
As the franchise continues, the list of creepy (and potentially franchise-extension worthy) totems in the Warren residence grows. There’s the Annabelle doll, a Perron family music box (added to the collection at the end of The Conjuring), and a “Crooked Man” zoetrope that had its own frightful cameo in The Conjuring 2—and, as we mentioned, will also be the subject of its own movie.
The third Annabelle movie will bring us back into the Warrens’ orbit, as their daughter’s babysitter makes the very dumb decision to enter the artifact room, where she gets attacked by the insidious doll, which, if the first trailer is any indication, will subject her to demonic possession. Given the way the franchise has expanded its cinematic universe, there’s a chance some other horrifying item in the Warrens’ collection could be a scene-stealer, and eventually earn its own spinoff film—repeating the horror franchise’s spinoff cycle like an ouroboros of terror.
The Demonic Fake-outs
In an effort to provide these stories with even bigger stakes, the CCU’s hauntings are frequently revealed to be something grander than an angry poltergeist: the terror is typically the work of a powerful demon. For most of The Conjuring 2, you’re led to believe the Hodgson family is being terrorized by the ghost of a man named Bill Wilkins, who used to live in the house they moved into. (This is why it’s important to read realty reviews.) However, by the end of the film, it’s revealed that the Wilkins persona is actually a smoke screen used by the demon Valak in an effort to possess one of the Hodgson children.
Valak, a good troll, pulls off another fake-out in The Nun, after Father Burke and Sister Irene investigate the Romanian abbey. While Irene is granted entry into the abbey—Father Burke can’t go in, because it’s cloistered—the demon poses as the abbess in front of Burke, who’s initially unaware that the actual abbess has long been dead. Irene has a similar experience within the abbey, praying alongside a group of nuns who are in fact dead, which is unveiled in a harrowing shot filled with nun corpses.
But these tricks aren’t exclusive to Valak in the CCU. The Annabelle doll is a front for a demon, which we learn in Annabelle: Creation uses two grieving parents—whose daughter, Annabelle, was lost in a tragic accident—to inhabit the doll. (Like in Pet Sematary, the parents think they’re gonna get their child resurrected, but are tragically mistaken.) Despite its spirit residing in a doll, the Annabelle demon’s true goal is to possess a human host, a through line for all Annabelle-centric films. While not possessing a human, the demon can frequently use the visage of the original Annabelle (a.k.a. the girl who was actually killed in the accident) to trick people into coming in close contact with it.
It goes without saying: Little girls in horror movies are always really damn scary. And these demons have so many tricks up their sleeves; they’ve clearly watched The Prestige in hell.
So. Many. Jump. Scares.
The CCU deploys jump scares more than any other horror tactic. After six films, it’s become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the trick remains effective no matter how many times it’s used—you do become familiar with Conjuring jump-scare beats, but that usually doesn’t save you from leaping halfway across your couch. On the other hand, well, all the jump scares may start to get a bit tiresome, as evinced by the negative reception for the past two CCU movies (The Nun, La Llorona).
But when they’ve worked for the Conjuring movies, man are they terrifying. The Conjuring’s signature scary moment is deceptively simple, basically a game of hide-and-go-seek in the Perron household, with the tension derived from excruciating moments of complete silence and intermittent clapping. (Suffice it to say, don’t watch this if you don’t like getting scared.)
While La Llorona is the least compelling CCU entry thus far, it does have a couple of chilling set pieces—one of which, as seen in the first teaser trailer, uses car doors being repeatedly opened by La Llorona for a frightening payoff. (The sequence is obviously a little rushed in the trailer, which, needless to say, makes it less effective than the full car ghost-attack experience in the movie, but you get the idea.) Barring a dramatic recalibration of the CCU, you can expect future Conjuring installments to employ tons of jump scares, to varying degrees of success.
Doors That Creak Loudly, Slowly Open, and/or Slam Shut
Seriously, these movies love freaky door tricks. Take into evidence these four GIFs from four different movies: The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, Annabelle, and Annabelle: Creation, respectively.
Somebody get these people some door stoppers and plumber’s grease.
A Test of Faith
The CCU has a vested interest in Catholic imagery; it’s easy to lose count of how many times the franchise has featured some iteration of crosses being knocked off walls, or turned upside down by some unseen malevolent force. It is the beating heart of the Conjuring’s main conflicts, something that producer Peter Safran told CinemaBlend in 2018 will be a through line for all of the franchise’s films. “We try to have a certain consistency in the films in terms of what their core values and concepts are—the idea of faith, potential loss of faith; the idea that good and evil exist; and your only real armor against evil is your faith, whatever that faith may be,” he explained.
It is perhaps most pronounced—in the literal confrontation, and how it’s presented visually—in The Nun, as the movie contrasts the lightness of Sister Irene against the sinister presence of Valak. But the CCU films don’t necessarily need to hinge on Christian faith: Though Father Perez is Anna’s initial religious connection in the film, the bulk of her help in La Llorona comes from a curandero (spiritual healer). The curandero, played by Raymond Cruz, maybe doesn’t dole out the best advice—he effectively tells Anna she’ll need to fight La Llorona, which sounds badass but is probably inadvisable—but it does demonstrate that faith and courage in the CCU movies don’t have to be fully reliant on the same holy-water-and-biblical-scripture beats as the previous entries.
All told, La Llorona is probably the least Conjuring-like Conjuring film released thus far, with the faintest connection in the form of a recurring priest. But it’s evidence that the CCU is interested in casting a wider net to expand its cache of cinematic horrors (and franchise potential). Whether or not La Llorona herself gets the sequel treatment, the film does have one more important connection to the rest of the CCU: Its director, Michael Chaves, will be back behind the camera for The Conjuring 3.