The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
The latest 'Conjuring' film serves up the franchise's usual bumps and jumps with gusto, but too much about this threequel fails to surprise.
June 03, 2021
Sometimes it festers in the hearts of killers. Sometimes it's the reason that villains keep stalking heroes. Sometimes, otherworldly forces are at play. However it graces the big screen, evil is a complicated concept — but cinema also frequently handles it in a muddled and simplistic fashion. Increasingly, as seen in origin stories like Joker and Cruella, profound wickedness has a relatable, almost-excusable reason. Acknowledging that bad things can just happen and unpleasant people can just exist without explanation (so, opting for something far more sinister and also much more realistic) is becoming rare. The other frequently deployed movie rationale, especially in horror, sits at the heart of one of the biggest cash-earning current franchises there is. In The Conjuring films and their spinoffs, evil lurks because literal demons also lurk. Different tactic, same result.
Starting in 2013 with The Conjuring, expanding with 2014's Annabelle, and also including The Conjuring 2, both terrible and much better sequels to Annabelle, the dismal The Nun and the formulaic The Curse of the Weeping Woman, The Conjuring Universe now spans eight evil-fighting flicks — and they're all as straightforward as it gets regarding battling the nefarious. Circling around real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the franchise posits that the supernatural exists, darkness preys upon the innocent and its central couple usually has the tools to combat everything untoward. That template remains firmly in place in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. That said, the third Conjuring flick within the broader Conjuring realm does attempt a few changes. Rather than getting creeped out by haunted houses, it gets spooked by a kid and then a teenager who are both possessed. True to form, bone-shakingly horrific things can't simply occur without some kind of excuse and entity at play.
The Warrens (Patrick Wilson, Aquaman, and Vera Farmiga, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) are first tasked with saving eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard, WandaVision) from a demon after his family moves to stereotypically sleepy Brookfield, Connecticut. Their efforts seem successful, even if Ed has a heart attack mid-exorcism, but the evil force they're fighting has really just jumped ship. Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor, The Spanish Princess), the boyfriend of David's sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook, NOS4A2), is quickly besieged by strange occurrences. He's soon also covered in blood after stabbing his landlord to Blondie's 'Call Me'. The death penalty beckons; however, the Warrens convince Arne's lawyer to plead not guilty by reason of demonic possession — the first time that ever happened in the US — and then commit to unearthing whatever paranormal details they can to save his life.
The trailer for The Devil Made Me Do It teases legal thrills, but in a bait-and-switch way — because this film is barely concerned with Arne's court case. The true tale, which was previously dramatised in a 1983 TV movie starring Kevin Bacon, merely provides an easy setup here. Sticking to the facts hardly bothers director Michael Chaves (The Curse of the Weeping Woman) and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman). Instead, the pair focus on the usual bumps, jumps and scares that have haunted this franchise since day one. Taking their cues from James Wan, the Australian Saw and Insidious co-creator who helmed the first two Conjuring flicks, The Devil Made Me Do It has all the eerie noises and sudden frights down pat, in fact. More of them are just splashed across the screen, attempting to unnerve the movie's audience with the gusto of a well-oiled machine. As the series' creator and producer, if Wan had opted to call this one The Conjuring 3: Conjuring Harder, the title would've fit.
There's a difference between nailing the technical basics and making them engaging, though. This many movies in, The Conjuring Universe should be aiming for more than the former. It definitely shouldn't be cribbing from The Exorcist as gleefully as The Devil Made Me Do It does. Chaves and Johnson-McGoldrick — and Wan, who has a story credit — also forget that if you repeat something too often, it stops being unsettling. In comedy, some gags grow the more they go on, such as The Simpsons' classic Sideshow Bob rake sequence, but the same doesn't prove true in horror when shadowy figures loiter, things keep moving that shouldn't and sounds blast suddenly. All three use the element of surprise, and yet there's no chance anyone watching will be caught unawares by the The Devil Made Me Do It's souped-up demonic antics. And, don't go expecting a meaningful examination of satanic panic, or the way that conservative sections of society need something to blame for life's ills. In this movie, it's just a given that some folks stray from faith, become evil occultists and commit dastardly deeds. As this series has done over and over, it's also a given that femininity draws the short straw.
An accused witch, a Raggedy Ann doll, a nun and the ghost of a mother have all symbolised evil in The Conjuring Universe's eyes, but the franchise does look fondly at one woman: Lorraine Warren. As played by Farmiga, she's depicted as the unwavering maternal presence always by Ed's side, and almost the clairvoyant Scully to his demonologist Mulder. It's that dynamic, and the investment that Farmiga and Wilson put into their roles, that keeps prolonging the series. It gives the Conjuring films, including this one, a centre to clutch onto — no matter how much Hollywood sheen has been buffed over the real-life figures, which is plenty. The Devil Made Me Do It needs them, even emphasising their love story, but that feels as standard as everything in the movie. Nonetheless, alongside Australian actor John Noble (Fringe) as a priest, Farmiga and Wilson are the best things about this routine, happily by-the-numbers, never remotely terrifying threequel. Indeed, the fact that more flicks will undoubtably still follow is the scariest thing about the film.