Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (screenplay & story), James Wan (story), Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes (characters)
Directed by: Michael Chaves
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, and Ruairi O'Connor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The Demonic Case That Shocked America
Depending on who you ask, Ed and Lorraine Warren were either world-class parapsychologists or complete and utter charlatans who exploited marks for their own personal gain. I’ll leave this debate to the experts since plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject in recent years thanks to The Conjuring franchise, which brought the duo newfound fame in the 21st century. What isn’t debatable is where these films fall on the subject since they unwaveringly depict the Warrens as good Christian soldiers in the eternal battle against evil. Whatever doubts the films raise about their authenticity is only done to bolster the couple’s mythology: in many ways, the skeptics are part and parcel with the evil they feel compelled to vanquish.
But if there were ever a case that would warrant a clear-eyed, challenging view of the couple, it’d be the “demon murder trial” of Arne Johnson, a young Connecticut man who killed his landlord and then pleaded “not guilty” due to demonic possession, with the Warrens attempting to provide expert testimony. The presiding judge swiftly shot down the argument, dismissing it as unscientific hogwash, something The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It treats as a minor inconvenience in translating the sordid affair to the screen. Because despite this being an obvious opportunity to more objectively consider the Warrens’ legacy, this third entry doubles down on the franchise’s raison d'être and remains content to be spook-a-blast hagiography about a kooky, ghost-hunting couple who employ the power of love and Jesus to exorcise demons.
And, to be fair, that’s just what this franchise is, and it’s hardly the first series to simply stand pat and play the hits. The Devil Made Me Do It does not set out to be a revelatory or subversive experience from the jump, opening with a routine exorcism sequence (who ever guessed we’d have those?) that feels like the climax of another movie while actually serving as a prologue to this one. Before Arne Johnson killed his landlord, he was on-hand for the exorcism of his girlfriend’s younger brother, David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), where, in an act of desperation, he invited the evil spirit tormenting the young kid to enter his own body. Problem solved—until it isn’t. Some days later (in reality, it was months), Arne grows ill and hallucinatory, imagining his ill-fated landlord to be a demon. Quite literally out of his mind, he stabs the man 22 times before he’s taken into custody miles from the scene by the bewildered police.
Ed and Lorraine re-enter the picture first by convincing Arne’s skeptical lawyer in an exchange that tells you everything you need to know about these films. “We’ll let you see Annabelle,” Ed quips, before we cut to a shot of the frazzled lawyer in court, now a true believer. But the court itself—or this fictional court, anyway—requires more proof, so the couple embarks on a statewide search into the occult, eventually connecting the dots between Arne’s case and other slayings, which they believe to be the work of a Satanic cult.
The Devil Made Me Do It lurks at a fascinating intersection, exploiting the era’s Satanic Panic with the type of movie that almost feels like evangelical hell house propaganda. Legal reality may have cast doubt on the Warrens’ approach to this case, but this movie leaves no room for doubt: not only is the devil real, but his furtive emissaries operate in the shadows, wreaking havoc on innocent souls for precisely no reason. During their investigation, Warrens consult a priest (John Noble) who tells them it’s futile to even ask why Satanists targeted the Glatzel family in the first place. The lord isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways. This grim-faced insistence on evil is partially what has come to define The Conjuring, and it might be what makes them so unsettling: there’s a conviction that allows that pervasive sense of evil to diffuse through these films. They can be downright oppressive at times.
This third one isn’t quite as gripping in this respect, but it’s aim is largely the same. Even though the plot has the Warrens roving between multiple locations (a welcome change of pace, however slight it may be), the formula leans on a familiar orchestration of jumps and jolts, almost all of them dialed up to maximum volume. Subtlety is going to be in short supply for any film that basically opens with an homage to The Exorcist’s hair-raising climax: when you come roaring out of the gate like that, it follows that you have to keep flinging more ghouls and ghosts at the audience. I don’t know if any of the ones here reach the indelible status of previous spirits like Annabelle, The Nun, or the Crooked Man. Call me crazy, but I don’t think we’re going to get a spin-off involving the naked corpse that hurls itself at the Warrens in a morgue here. Never underestimate the power of James Wan to get anything green-lit.
Speaking of, Wan is only around as a writer and producer this time around, having handed the directorial reins over to Michael Chaves. The good news is that this is a much more inspired film than The Curse of La Llorona, the tepid 2019 spin-off that made it fair to wonder if this whole Conjuring universe was being stretched too thin. This one, at the very least, feels a little more vital: it’s got Vera Farmgia and Patrick Wilson in tow, plus the most compelling hook this franchise has seen so far with the murder trial angle. Chaves responds with a nice bit of pinch-hitting, delivering the kind of scares Wan could probably orchestrate in his sleep at this point. I do think he struggles to mount a signature sequence: unlike the previous two, this one doesn’t sport a knock-out scene that immediately springs to mind.
There is the vague sensation of trudging through motions as the Warrens trudge through various underlit locations (even their own home is almost comically spooky looking, lit by one feeble lamp for maximum eeriness, I guess) and encounter bizarre phenomena. The occasional appearance of a witch’s totem and the eventual revelation of the “master Satanist” make for some creepy bits that are in search of a tighter movie. Putting the Warrens on the road gives this one a different energy, but it also results in a looser narrative that sometimes loses sight of the main thrust, especially when Arne (the ostensible protagonist) spends much of the back stretch in the margins, confined to a psychiatric ward. Considering how much the film already fudges the details, it’s somewhat surprising that The Conjuring 3 isn’t just a full-on courtroom drama, with the trial serving as a framing device to tie everything together. Instead, the film seemingly remembers the trial at the last minute before offering a quick wrap-up that leads you to believe the Warrens’ investigation was instrumental in saving Arne from a harsher sentence.
Because that, ultimately, is what these movies are in the service of: mythologizing Ed and Lorraine Warren with flattering portrayals drizzled with a syrupy sentimentality. As grim-faced as these movies are, they’re also strangely sweet love stories that invest in their returning characters in a way that’s rare for a genre that usually thrives on iconic monsters and madmen. How many haunted house stories go out of their way to let a main character do a rendition of an Elvis tune, you know? The Devil Made Me Do It doesn’t quite go that far, but it does sprinkle in some nice moments of levity and schmaltz.
Flashbacks reveal the couple’s early courtship, and there’s some fun banter here and there, most of it at the expense of the skeptics that dare to doubt their paranormal gifts. Lorraine also zings Ed when she tells him to hold her purse so she can investigate a spooky cellar on her own because he suffers a heart attack in the opening scene and spends the rest of the film leaning on the cane. The film could use a little more of this stuff—it’s a little odd that this film centers the Warrens more than the others, yet it feels the least sentimental. Farmiga and Wilson march through this thing mostly grim-faced until the final coda captures the sweetness that really sets this franchise apart.
Of course, depending on where you fall with the Warrens, depicting them as righteous lovebirds is troubling, if not downright offensive. Personally, I’m not sure what to believe about the couple—while I tend to be a skeptic about the paranormal, I can’t presume to know what was in the couple’s heart, nor can I judge their conviction, so I just accept that this series presents a highly idealized depiction of the couple. Maybe a film will eventually come along to offer a more objective exploration of the couple to rival The Conjuring’s various embellishments and mythologizing. But for now, this is what we’re left with: a trio of films (and various spin-offs) that occupy a unique place in the horror canon because their scares ultimately work to reinforce a comforting, Christian worldview that insists good can quell evil as long as it has love and Jesus in its arsenal. These might be the least blasphemous demonic possession movies ever made: they take that glimmer of hope offered by The Exorcist and forge it into a fiery sword of Christian righteousness that’s burning bright as ever in this latest outing, even if it’s starting to feel like the edges are starting to dull. It might be for the best to let the devil and his usual minions sit the next one out, which is a roundabout way of saying "give us an entire movie about the Southend Werewolf, you cowards."
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