I have a level of respect and ambivalence for what Warner Bros. has accomplished with The Conjuring films. On the one hand, given the number of sequels and spin-offs, it has gone from an original horror film to a fully functioning cinematic universe (one of the few outsides of the MCU to actually be successful). At the same time, setting up a series of films that essentially lionize controversial paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorrain Warren, continues to leave a bit of a sour taste, as these films are dealing with real people’s lives. These films are reimaginings of true events, where a married duo who basically committed nationally publicized schadenfreude can be held up as religious ghostbusters who take down demons. All of that is, I guess, a way of saying this third entry in the prime series, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, works as a way to move this series in a new direction, even if it comes up lacking in some areas.
It was always going to be a struggle to watch someone else attempt to make a film in the world developed by director James Wan. However, Michael Chaves (director of the unofficial entry of The ConjurVerse, The Curse of La Llorona) has stepped in and attempted to bring his own expertise into this world. The results are mixed. I was not a big fan of La Llorona, but Chaves brought some style reminiscence of early Sam Raimi in that film’s more thrilling moments. For this third Conjuring film, Chaves appears to be holding back on those sensibilities in favor of replicating Wan. Not a wrong choice in terms of consistency, but it’s hard to watch a film like this and not think about the different (and better) ways Wan would have approached the same material.
Based on the 1981 murder trial, where Arne Cheyenne Johnson (portrayed by Ruairi O’Connor in this film) claimed the devil made him kill his landlord, this film focuses on the investigation conducted by Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to learn the truth. The opening may be a highlight as we watch little David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) experience an exorcism. It is successful to a point, as the young boy’s soul is freed, only for the demonic spirit to enter Arne’s body. Arne actually volunteered himself, a tall order for the guy who is merely dating David’s older sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook).
Staged well enough, with at least one visual callback to The Exorcist, this opening is now synonymous with The Conjuring, as far as horror-driven prologues, but also the guide to a new direction for the series. While the film is still a case-of-the-week overall, we remain focused on the same family and all involved for the entire movie. Additionally, rather than being stationed in one family’s home, only for the Warrens to eventually answer the call, The Devil Made Me Do It takes things on the road. You see, it would appear there’s a human threat calling the shots this time around, and the Warrens are acting more like demon detectives. They track down leads and encounter unnerving situations in multiple locations, such as John Noble playing a friendly person who wants to help.
Does that make this entry more exciting? Yes and no. For the third Conjuring film, and one of many in an ongoing horror franchise, it makes sense to shake up the formula rather than see it grow stale. I enjoy the first two entries about the same, but it’s easy to see how The Conjuring 2, while still based on actual events, relied on the same story structure. This entry gives itself some space, but that also leads to some issues. A key problem area is having the film endear us to the people suffering. One of the best things about the other Conjuring films is that we got to know the main families well enough and did not want anything bad to happen to them. While I may be anti-demon and naturally don’t want bad things to happen to innocents, I can’t say this film did much to help me connect with Arne, Debbie, and David. Whether that comes out of weak writing, the performances, or both, the film’s stakes seem far less severe by comparison.
Fortunately, this film does understand that the Warrens are the stars. There is a lot more to say about their real-life counterparts and what this series may be doing to expel the less than savory aspects of their legacy, but I have no real reason to speak ill of what Wilson and Farmiga have done with these fictional versions. Even as demonologists, the throughline for them being a loving couple has remained. Both are smart, driven, and occasionally humorous individuals who firmly hold on to their faith and the fight against demonic evils. They’d also do anything for each other. The amber-colored flashbacks of when these two first met may seem over-the-top in a cheap-ish sort of way, but it still helps convey that these two are the very likable heart of this whole universe.
But how does all of that factor into a mainstream scary movie for audiences? Well, you get to see these two taking on creepy ghouls and goblins in darkly lit corners of Smalltown, USA. Okay, so maybe we don’t see a tag team wrestling match with goblins, but the film allows us to watch the Warrens in action. In particular, Lorraine gets plenty of time to shine by using her ability to flashback to scenes of demonic crime and play out specific scenarios. At the same time, Ed looks on and deals with current elements going bump in the night. We also watch Arne struggle during his stay in a prison hospital, where some occultist activity seems to be gunning for him.
As a period horror film, it’s easy to see The Devil Made Me Do It relying on satanic panic to help fuel the story. The looming trial could serve as a way to bridge some sort of gap between what the Warrens do and how a court of law takes their efforts into consideration. However, this is all merely topical flavoring to add to a standard supernatural/religious horror movie. The way things play out, there’s enough to enjoy in the investigation and plenty of jumps to keep audience members moving in their seats. I do wish this Conjuring film could have put together an iconic horror set piece in the same way we’ve seen the previous films do with the “hide and clap” game, “man in the TV,” or that damn nun. Still, there are a decent collection of scares in a film that provides Wilson and Farmiga the opportunity to shine. That’s enough to calm any spirits worried about the state of this spooky universe.