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The ‘Conjuring’ Universe Is Strong, and Only Getting Stronger

As the latest film in the franchise, ‘The Devil Made Me Do It’ reinforces what makes the series so resilient while also charting a potential new path as it continues to expand

Scott Laven/New Line Cinema

These days, making a major studio film usually goes hand-in-hand with aspirations to turn the project into an interconnected cinematic universe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the standard-bearer for such an approach, but the reason the MCU is always singled out for praise is because there’s little in the way of competition. From the comically ill-fated Dark Universe to the DC Extended Universe needing to give the Suicide Squad an entire do-over, the past decade in franchise-making has proven that replicating the MCU’s success is easier said than done.

But perhaps aspiring cinematic universes just need the right guiding hand—someone with both commercial and franchise-making bonafides. One such filmmaker is James Wan, who’s made a career out of launching lucrative franchises, including Saw, Insidious, and Aquaman, the first DCEU project to cross the billion-dollar threshold at the box office. (His pitstop with the already-established Fast and Furious franchise via Furious 7 wasn’t too shabby, either.) But Wan’s greatest accomplishment might be shepherding the Conjuring series, which has efficiently (and somewhat quietly) chugged along for eight years as a Warner Bros. cash cow by bringing the modern, interconnected cinematic universe template to the horror genre.

Based (very loosely) on the exploits of self-proclaimed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), The Conjuring franchise began by pulling from the late couples’ real-life case files, taking supposed instances of demonic possession and haunted houses as an invitation to pull off ample jump-scares. Plenty of horror films have tackled this type of material, but with Wan’s clever knack for staging and the surprising emotional undercurrent of the Warrens’ love for one another—much of which comes down to Wilson and Farmiga’s warm chemistry—The Conjuring and its direct sequel drew favorable reviews and plenty of fanfare from horror enthusiasts—and more importantly for Warner Bros., impressive box office hauls.

The fact that The Conjuring franchise has plenty of historical material to pull from ensures there’s no shortage of material for sequels. But haunted artifacts and nightmare-inducing ghouls from the movies have also planted the seeds for spinoffs on the way to The Conjuring becoming a full-on cinematic universe. The results of this expansion have been a mixed bag. One particularly memorable (and allegedly cursed) Raggedy Ann doll already spawned three Annabelle movies of varying degrees of quality—additional spinoffs about a demonic nun, a scene-stealing monstrosity from The Conjuring 2, and another derived from Mexican folklore have joined them. More spinoffs based on even more standout figures from main The Conjuring movies are reportedly on the way. As a result, the amount of Conjuring offshoots have surpassed the original films in quantity. Sans a cameo in Annabelle Comes Home, a Farmiga and Wilson-led entry in the franchise hasn’t been released since the Obama administration. And critically, at least, the franchise is on a downturn: The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona were low points, a problem made more glaring by the fact that the movies came out within seven months of each other. The pandemic delayed matters, but nevertheless, the Conjuring universe appeared to be going the way of the Lego Movie franchise: stretching itself so thin that it runs the risk of ending prematurely.

There’s still enough to like about the Conjuring spinoffs, but sometimes a franchise works best when relying on its heavy hitters. For years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe leaned on the star wattage of Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) and Chris Evans (Captain America) before only recently expanding its scope to include an immortal alien race with a fondness for natural landscapes. As for the Conjuring universe, while the demonic presences might come and go, the Warrens bring an old-school charm and empathy to the proceedings. Even if jump-scares are always going to be a big draw, there’s something genuinely appealing in seeing how demonic possessions and cursed artifacts never shake the Warrens’ faith. Demons might exist in this world, but at the end of the day, love (and a few drops of holy water) still wins out. It’s an endearing sentiment carrying the main movies of the Conjuring universe—despite sufficient evidence that the real-life Warrens, as supposed paranormal investigators as well as people, may not have been as pure.

Enough time has passed between The Conjuring 2 and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, which hit theaters and HBO Max on Friday, that the franchise could probably get away with running back its greatest hits: namely, a family being tormented by mysterious happenings in their home, someone getting possessed, and the Warrens coming to their aid before staring lovingly at each other after another job well done. But following a kinetic opening sequence in which the Warrens attempt to exorcise a demon from an 11-year-old boy—the sort of moment that typically marks the climax of their missions—The Devil Made Me Do It shifts away from the haunted house formula, hinting at how the Conjuring franchise could sustain itself for years to come. (Rest assured, the jump-scares haven’t been exorcised.)

Rather than the Warrens successfully expelling the demon, the process is halted after Ed suffers a heart attack and the entity transfers from little David Glatzel onto Arne Johnson, the boyfriend of the possessed kid’s older sister. Soon after, Arne experiences intense hallucinations, culminating in the gruesome murder of his landlord. As the film’s title lays out, Arne was under the (demonic) influence; his legal defense rests on, somehow, proving that in court. Considering this is based on a real murder from 1981, The Devil Made Me Do It is walking a tricky tightrope, particularly with the implication that, well, a killer isn’t responsible for his own actions.

Whether or not you believe in, as Vera Farmiga calls it, “spiritual warfare,” The Devil Made Me Do It mostly skirts controversy by leaning so far into ridiculousness that it could never be mistaken as a faithful recreation of actual events. It’s not that previous Conjuring entries didn’t strain credulity, but as the Warrens dig into why a demon latched onto the Glatzel family in the first place, the movie effectively becomes a paranormal procedural—an investigation that ultimately leads the couple to a Satanist capable of powerful witchcraft like reanimating corpses at funeral homes. Suffice to say, the vaguely-based-on-a-true-story setup should be taken with an ocean’s worth of salt.

Director Michael Chaves, who previously helmed the Curse of La Llorona spinoff, doesn’t bring the same level of kitschy flair or craftsmanship as Wan, whose increasingly busy schedule has forced him to step back from a more involved role in the Conjuring franchise. (His contributions to The Devil Made Me Do It are a shared story and producer credit, but hey, whatever gets us Aquaman 2 faster is a lawful good for the universe.) But the film makes its own compelling case that the franchise’s Warren-led adventures don’t have to be confined to any particular setting—from haunted houses to occult practices, spiritual warfare comes in many forms.

Considering Wan originally envisioned the series being called The Warren Files, an obvious nod to a well-known science-fiction procedural, The Devil Made Me Do It feels like a natural progression for the Conjuring universe. A Conjuring movie might have a few essential ingredients—for one, all of them have been period pieces—but the blueprint is flexible enough to avoid total repetition. (So long as they finally give Annabelle a rest.) Given the franchise has shown no signs of slowing down—the movies have grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide, so it’s not like Warner Bros. is in any rush to end things—that’s a promising development. The mainstream reach of a horror franchise will never match that of superhero blockbusters, but the continued success of the Conjuring movies is nothing to scoff at. In fact, considering the amount of would-be cinematic universes that have tried and failed to get off the ground, the Conjuring franchise is—financially, and for the most part, critically—a rare beast. The DCEU may get most of the headlines, but the Conjuring universe is Warners’ underrated marvel.

Whether The Devil Made Me Do It becomes an aberration rather than an actual turning point remains to be seen. The movie doesn’t have any obvious avenues for spinoff material like the Warrens’ cursed artifact room, unless the human antagonist consumed by Satanic practices gets their own origin story. (It seems unlikely, but then again, a demon nun got its own spinoff based solely on how fucking scary it looks.) But all that matters is that Wilson and Farmiga are along for the ride. They aren’t the kind of movie stars who usually carry multi-billion-dollar franchises, but the duo keep the franchise anchored as an unexpected love story. It’s all a bit atypical: two respected but understated actors bringing warmth and empathy to a genre that’s often deprived of it, for a series that’s taking a page out of the cinematic universe playbook dominated by superheroes. But these components are exactly what makes the Conjuring such an impressive, and enduring, show of faith.