Synopsis – A chilling story of terror, murder and unknown evil that shocked even experienced real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. One of the most sensational cases from their files, it starts with a fight for the soul of a young boy, then takes them beyond anything they’d ever seen before, to mark the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.
My Take – Released back in 2013, The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, not just reinvigorated the stale haunted house horror sub-genre, it also brought much cultural attention to real life couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, two demonologists who battled the paranormal with the power of their Catholic faith.
However, no one would have expected the film to also launch into a billion dollar franchise which consists of not only a solidly scary sequel, but a branches of spinoffs like the Annabelle trilogy, The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona. Though none of these offshoots replicated the acclaim of the original, they managed to be financially successful enough to guarantee further developments.
But this time around in an attempt to shake the franchise up certain changes have been made, firstly, this latest installment moves away from the haunted house formula served successfully in both The Conjuring films, and instead delves into being more of a mystery as it adapts the real life story of the first case in the U.S. which feature a defendant claiming demonic possession as proof of his innocence.
Secondly, James Wan, the director of the first two installments, is only involved as producer and is given a story credit, as he hands over the reins to Michael Chaves, who previously made his feature directorial debut with poorly received The Curse of La Llorona (2019), working on a screenplay from David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, one of the co-writers of The Conjuring 2 (2016).
Unfortunately, this certain changes also means that the film doesn’t live up to its attached expectations as it lacks both Wan’s direction and the richness that make the first two films so enjoyable. While the previous two films are considered as master class in building suspense and delivering on a spooky premise, this film just doesn’t reach the frightening heights of the first two. Sure, it is scary enough, but a quicker pace and a conventional look renders the whole thing a bit more generic.
This doesn’t make the film bad, necessarily. It’s just a film that doesn’t live up to its pedigree, but on its own does pretty well especially in comparison to most horror films which release ever year, making it definitely worth a watch.
Set in 1981, the story once again follows Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) who are in the middle of providing assistance in the difficult exorcism of David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), an 8-year-old boy. However, with things looking dire, Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the boyfriend of David’s sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), manages to convince the demon to leave David and possess him instead.
An exchange only witnesses by Ed, who unfortunately suffers a heart attack at the ordeal and loses conscious immediately. And by the time he wakes up, Arne has already murdered Bruno Sauls (Ronnie Gene Blevins), Debbie’s landlord, by stabbing him twenty-two times. With Lorraine’s visions hinting at something larger at play, they convince Arne’s lawyer to enter his plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession as they begin gathering proof to keep him from getting the death penalty.
As I mentioned above, this latest installment is positioned more like mystery film with the Warrens investigating how the possession is tied to other cases in the area, and begin to suspect that someone is inviting a demonic presence to incite violent crimes, making this is both an intriguing concept which is entertaining to unfold, yet at the same time feels underdeveloped as the film struggles to reach the highs of its predecessors under this new structure.
Perhaps a big reason for that is that director Michael Chaves chooses to showcase his talent for creating special effect set pieces rather than allow us to spend enough time to get invested with the characters directly involved in the driving plot line. A big reason for the success of the James Wan directed duology was that we cared about the families affected by the haunting, and the toll the events were taking on them. While the Lorrains acted as the solution to their troubles.
But here, Ed and Lorraine are in the midst of everything right when this film begins, while from the new family, Debbie is the only member we see for any length, and David gets only a couple scenes as the rest of the Glatzels are casually thrown in during the exorcism and a brief flashback. Mostly, the film is missing the sense of dread that permeated every scene in the first and second Conjuring.
There are a couple good moments, like the opening exorcism, and a scene involving a waterbed that was unfortunately given away in the trailer. But most of it is just the Warrens chasing clue after clue, as Ed looks worried and Lorraine uses psychic powers. Another problem with the film is human antagonist aptly named The Occultist (Eugenie Bondurant) is terrifying in her omniscient capabilities, but also several steps removed from the audience. Her motivations are murky at best, and the reveal of how they’re connected to another character is decidedly anticlimactic. Only if the film had concentrated more on Arne and the trial, leaving the answer to his and David’s possessions more ambiguous, it would have been more satisfying.
After a promising opening, Chaves’ direction skirts the line between horror and supernatural crime story without effectively blending the two. Early visual strokes of genius, like a clever shot of a shower-curtain rod that obscures demonic claws, or an apparition inside a water bed, are later ditched in favor of gloomy set after gloomy set, with little of that early color that would bring them to life.
Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable, mainly as director Chaves demonstrates that he knows his way around a jump scare as he seems to have studied the previous films and replicates certain elements especially some really terrifying set pieces quite beautifully. Like the sequence centered on Lorraine in the forest, having a vision of a murder that recently took place while she figures out its connection to Arne’s possession. It’s a trippy, heart racing scene that concludes with Lorraine hanging precariously off a cliff.
Performances wise, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson carry the film with incredible turns as they continue to be the heart of the franchise. Wilson and Farmiga’s compassionate, sensitive performances help audience care about the Warrens, and by extension, the victims of whatever case they’re investigating. In lesser hands, The Conjuring films would feel like a cynical attempt to cash in on a successful horror franchise, as opposed to a genuinely interesting bunch of films about paranormal investigators.
In other roles, Eugenie Bondurant is effectively creepy, while Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, and Julian Hilliard make strong impressions. Unfortunately John Noble is wasted. On the whole, ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ is an effective horror film which in comparison falls short to its predecessors.
Directed – Michael Chaves
Rated – R
Run Time – 112 minutes