WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
After the latest instalment of The Conjuring franchise The Nun falling flat, I have a sneaking suspicion that the horror franchise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The popular supernatural horror films set in the expansive Conjuring and Insidious universes had left audiences across the globe white-knuckled and petrified for the last eight years.
The franchises both boast multi-million dollar films that all centre on demonic hauntings, the supernatural and possession.
But, after seeing The Nun, which left me utterly shocked by the film’s lack of finesse and poor script-writing, I’m left wondering whether the phrase ‘less is more’ is applicable to the horror franchise world.
The Conjuring universe
The real magic of The Conjuring universe is owed to real-life supernatural experts and in-film main characters Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson do an excellent job portraying the caring yet reluctantly helpful protagonists who investigate supernatural cases throughout the franchise, while also getting themselves entangled in some pretty nasty demonic business along the way.
The films in the franchise that utilise these two fascinating characters, The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 (directed by James Wan), whose roles in the narratives are rooted in real-world events, are far more successful in their ability to tell an intelligent and frightening tale.
Spin-off additions to the franchise, John R. Leonetti’s Anabelle, David F. Sandberg’s Anabelle: Creation and Corin Hardy’s The Nun unfortunately lack the same level of suspense and narrative complexity, opting for scare tactics and ugly monsters, or in many cases a doll to scare audiences.
Anabelle and Anabelle: Creation
Despite the classically creepy horror vibe and general unpleasantness of a haunted doll, the Anabelle films really miss the mark when it comes to intelligent and genuinely scary horror film-making. Based off of ‘real’ cases of possessed dolls, the two Anabelle spin-off films lack relatability and any realism, which are both fundamental elements of horror story-telling
The main-characters of the two films are so poorly put together that they are more cartoon than person, and fall victim to serious horror clichés. The characters feel like they’ve been designed to fit into typical film archetypes such as the sick orphan girl and the vulnerable pregnant woman, rather than resembling anything close to a real person.
Despite the ridiculousness of some of the elements of the second Anabelle spin-off, including an almost amusing Phantom of the Opera style mask on a bed-ridden mother, Anabelle: Creation has some redeeming qualities. The film genuinely builds some palpable tension prior to the franchise’s token jump-scares and the set design is extremely effective setting the mood for the film from the moment the protagonist arrives at the derelict orphanage.
‘Valak’, the evil demon and antagonist of The Conjuring 2 and spin-off film The Nun, makes a cameo in Anabelle Creation appearing in a photo at the beginning of the film and then later at the end of the credits in a teaser clip. This was a nice addition to the film, although irrelevant to the Anabelle: Creation plot, and reminds audiences that all the films are inter-connected despite their separate timelines.
Although I enjoyed this Easter-egg while watching Anabelle Creation, I truly think the repetition of seeing ‘Valak’ throughout The Conjuring films really worked against The Nun’s director Hardy.
After seeing the evil nun numerous times throughout the movie franchise, on social media and on posters, the terrifying effect the horror monster had on audiences the first time it reared its ugly head in The Conjuring 2, has been totally lost due to the over-saturation of the nun’s image.
The first six times I saw the character I was frightened, now when I see the Marilyn Manson-esque demon, I struggle to elicit any emotional response at all.
By the time I went to the cinema to actually see the spin-off film The Nun, I was neither shocked or frightened by the movie-monster, which in itself defeats the purpose of a horror film and renders it utterly useless. Not only did the film lose its fear-factor before it had even screened, within the first five minutes of the film audiences were shown the demon, meaning for the rest of the film viewers knew exactly what to expect.
Despite my bemusement and general disappointment with the film, others were not so numb to The Nun, with one woman sitting in the row behind me actually screaming on multiple occasions throughout the film, which scared me more than the movie itself.
Regardless of my dislike of The Nun and Anabelle spin-offs, I am a big fan of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and found both films to be delightfully scary. The films in the franchise directed by James Wan were far superior examples of horror film-making, while the other films directed by Leonetti, Sandberg and Hardy left a lot to be desired.
The next instalments in The Conjuring universe will include Anabelle 3 which is due to be released in 2019, as well as The Conjuring 3 and The Crooked Man which are yet to have confirmed release dates.
The Insidious Franchise
Another of James Wan’s projects, the Insidious franchise, consists of four multi-million dollar supernatural horror films, with plots that follow the case files of ‘demonologists’.
Wan directed the first two instalments in the franchise, which were both excellent films and admirably, utterly terrifying.
The two films follow the stories of the Lambert family and their unfortunate run-ins with various demons and supernatural entities that come from a hellish other-worldly dimension known as ‘the further’. Within the films, both father (Patrick Wilson) and son (Ty Simpkins) have the ability to astral project, leaving their physical bodies and travelling into ‘the further’, which ultimately attracts horrific demons to their home and into their lives. The family, including Rose Byrne as Mrs Lambert, are helped by a psychic medium/parapsychologist named Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and her amusing side-kicks Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson).
The demons within these films are genuinely scary, particularly the hoofed ‘lipstick-faced demon’ of the first Insidious film and the horrible ‘bride in black’ that appears in both Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2.
Wan expertly builds suspense within both films by often leaving much to the imagination – audiences are only allowed glimpses of the demonic antagonists of the films when they pop-up and surprise viewers at unexpected moments. The demons are only fully revealed towards the end of the films, allowing the audience to let their imaginations run wild and frighten them alongside the films’ extremely effective soundtrack. The use of frantic, scratchy string instruments throughout both of the films is reminiscent of nails on a chalk-board, putting viewers on edge throughout the film strategically heightening the tension.
Insidious: Chapter 3
The third instalment in the franchise Insidious: Chapter 3 was directed by Leigh Whannell, who plays the character Specs and also worked as the screen-writer on all four of the Insidious films. The third film centres on an entirely different plot-line to the first two instalments in the series, with some similarities such as the inclusion of parapsychologist Elise Rainier and ‘the further’.
The demon in this film, ‘the man who can’t breathe’, was honestly more gross than he was terrifying. The demon strongly resembles a cancer patient with emphysema, making me more scared of the effects of smoking than of the actual film.
Insidious: Chapter 3 felt more like a cliché than its predecessors, pulling the age-old horror-trope that if you mess around with Ouija boards demons will come and torture you, which in the case of this film is true. This felt like a clumsy throwback to classic horror film The Exorcist, but really missed the mark due to its half-hearted execution.
The third film lacks the same complexity as the first two and unfortunately forebodes a downward spiral for the Insidious franchise.
Insidious: The Last Key
Directed by Adam Robitel, Insidious: The Last Key is easily one of the poorest of the Insidious films. The plot follows parapsychologist Elise Rainier as she returns to her childhood home to face her own personal demons, both metaphorically and literally.
The film had such an incredible amount of potential, with a seemingly interesting storyline and Elise Rainier as the main character, but the script-writing and Specs and Tucker’s creepy (not in a horror way) relationship with two teenage girls ultimately leads to a giant flop. Given that Whannell and Sampson are both nearing or already well into their 40s, a romantic entanglement with the two young nieces of Elise Rainier really felt implausible and unnecessary.
The antagonist of the film, ‘key face’ was far scarier prior to seeing the entirety of the demons extremely literal design. The demon has keys for fingers and a key-hole on its face, and the film has ‘key’ in the title. The demon uses its key fingers to unlock doors to other dimensions, and for whatever reason, people’s throats. This for me was so literal I felt I was really being spoon-fed the film’s over-arching concept by Robitel, as if to assume I was incapable of making thematic connections myself.
When I saw the entirety of the demon I was amused to see that it had cob webs for what I can only assume were wings underneath its arms, and seemed to drool on itself like a giant infant, leaving me feeling underwhelmed and slightly humoured.
I do have to give Robitel credit for the jump-scares in this film. However predictable the scares were, they were nonetheless effective, leaving me sweaty-palmed and anticipating the next fright as movie-goers in the cinema around me threw their popcorn over-themselves at any loud noise within the film.
The biggest issue I had with this film was the conclusion. In the end viewers are lead to believe that this horrific, powerful demon that has been torturing people for decades is bested by Elise’s mum’s ghost, who throws a lantern at the demon’s head, which results in it catapulting backwards out of view and out of the picture assumedly forever.
In the other Insidious films the demons needed to be trapped back in ‘the further’ to be defeated, but apparently for ‘key face’ a swift smack to the head with an oil-lamp will suffice. A sad instalment to what started as an amazing horror franchise.
Insidious 5 is currently in development and does not yet have a release date.
Ultimately The Conjuring and Insidious franchises have had some misses with their latest releases, leaving some viewers like me feeling disappointed with the producers and directors of the films. Luckily in the case of The Conjuring 3, Wan will be back in the director’s chair to hopefully redeem the film series, and the Insidious franchise realistically has nowhere to go but up from this point.