It’s very strange that the most loving, wholesome marriage in modern film is based on a couple of hustlers.
The Conjuring was sort of a phenomenon when upon its 2013 release, taking the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren from Amityville to Harrisville, Rhode Island. James Wan directed the first two installments, which have since become classics of the horror genre. While the rest of the “Conjuring Universe” has gotten wildly out of control, these first two films hold a special place in the hearts of film fans. The announcement of a third installment in this core series was met with mild excitement, watered down by the knowledge that James Wan had ceded the director’s chair to Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llarona). The story of two people that performed sham exorcisms and clairvoyant readings had been retooled into one of the most profitable horror franchises imaginable, but could it stick the landing?
The answer is no, but I still had a good time.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It shows an evolution in style from its predecessors. Gone is the haunted house, replaced instead by a possessed man accused of murder. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), come to the defense of Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Conner) as he stands trial. As they begin to discover evidence of witchcraft and demonic possession, they race to find the answers before Arne succumbs to the entity in his head.
In lesser hands than Wilson and Farmiga’s this would have been a forgettable thing. It’s not bad, but desperate references to The Exorcist and The Shining leave Chaves’s second feature feeling like three kids in an overcoat as they attempt to pass as an adult. While Wan’s work stood out on its own, Chaves’s feels in need of a guiding hand. The visual panache is worn down, the script needed another pass, and much of the atmosphere of the film leaves so little to the imagination that you can call it’s final reveal to let it know you’ll be arriving shortly. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have long been the highlight of this franchise, but I missed Wan’s deft hand when it came to pacing and structure. This is less what you’d expect from a part of this franchise, and I think mixing it up by aiming for a courtroom drama with horror elements is a nice idea, but this isn’t anyone’s baby. That seems to have been thrown out with the bathwater.
It does, however, still contain wonderful work from its talented cast. This is the rock on which my mild enjoyment of this film was built, looking to the two leads for support through this difficult film. Nothing about the movie is necessarily “bad,” but it’s a big step down from the first two installments and the frayed threads are beginning to show.
It doesn’t help that the franchise has brought a lot of attention to the Warrens as people. The more we attempt to cast these as films based on true stories (which grows harder to swallow with each film), the more we all delve into these very real individuals and have to contend with their very real flaws. These two individuals are considered to be con-artists by most, but it’s more complicated than that. They fully believe the things they do and say are real, despite evidence on film and recordings that contradict timelines and behaviors. Hell, Ed Warren carried on a sexual relationship with a 15 year old with his wife’s approval. They’re beyond problematic, so painting them as the pinnacle of harmonious matrimony doesn’t sit well when you’re trying to pit these characters against the forces of the Devil. That’s my own very personal hangup with these films, I acknowledge that, but I still think it’s an issue we need to have on the table.
This is a very simple, straightforward horror film that is going to tickle many people’s fancy. I found it less a tickle, more a tackle. Everything from its references to its music is very blunt and quick, but it still manages to be charming due to the remarkable work from the two leads. Is it worth seeing in theatres? No, but it’s worth a romp in the hay on HBO Max.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is currently streaming on HBO Max and is available in theatres.