There’s no doubt that James Wan’s 2013 haunted house/possession chiller The Conjuring is one of the most important horror films in the last decade, and certainly a key moment in the history of the genre as a whole. Its 2016 sequel, The Conjuring 2, also directed by Wan, is a masterclass in how to follow-up a lauded frightfest with an equally terrifying outing. While the other films in the so-called Conjuring Universe have their own charms and quirks, none have quite matched the brilliance of their namesake films. As such, there was a lot for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the first film in the main franchise without Wan at the reins, to live up to; and while it’s a serviceable enough film, Wan’s absence is noticeable and rather than a horror hat trick, we’re left with a bit of a turkey.
Based on the real life murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, Devil once again reunites us with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren as they exorcise a vicious demon from eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) in the summer of 1981. During the chaos of the rite, Ed notices the demon switch hosts to David’s sister’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), but before he can warn anyone he has a heart attack. By the time he wakes in the hospital, Arne has murdered his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins). The Warrens, feeling responsible, take on the monumental task of attempting to prove to the court that demonic possession is real and that Arne was not responsible for the killing. Their quest for evidence will lead them back into a dangerous world of witches, curses, and twisted supernatural entities.
There was a lot of speculation during production that the film would feature heavy courtroom scenes interlaced with horror, much like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), but screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and director Michael Chaves largely eschew the legal angle in favor of the “psychic medium aiding cops” trope as Ed and Lorraine use their gifts and expertise to uncover that there is a curse at work here, a curse placed by a witch that must be found and stopped before it can be completed. It’s all very Satanic Panic, which would have exploded onto the public consciousness a year prior, so in that sense it feels historically appropriate, and witchcraft/deals with the devil were a plot point in the original film so its not entirely uncharted territory for the Conjuring Universe, but does lend to this film feeling very different from its predecessors in more ways than one.
As in the first two films, Devil opens with the Warrens in the midst of a case, the exorcism of David Glatzel. Unlike those cases from the earlier movies, however (Annabelle and the Amityville Horror), the Glatzel case is the throughline of the film, as its characters (human and demonic) stick with us throughout the story, the curse transferring from David to Arne and setting in motion the main plot of the film. There’s some really effective, frightening moments during the opening, but it almost feels like the film throwing its best stuff out first to hook the audience, as the rest of the scares are somewhat tame compared to what we see in the first ten minutes. Beginning the story at the climax of Glatzel possession also renders the audience unable to know the characters outside of their demon-harangued lives. What were they like before this dark thing descended onto their lives? Were they quick to accept that something otherworld was tormenting them? We don’t know, because the characters are already so attuned to the mechanics of possession, so when it emerges that Arne is now host to the malevolent spirit, the fear of his loved ones is too familiar. They’ve been there, they know what to expect. We don’t see dawning terror overtake them, and as such, its hard to relate and or fear with them.
This lack of emotional investment is meant to be picked up by the Warrens, who become the central focus for the first time in the franchise. While Ed and Lorraine were always the charm and heart of the first two Conjuring films, their story was second to the respective haunting/possession. In this third film, they are the driving force, with Arne’s story meant to provide jump scares here and there to break up the Warrens’ investigation. Luckily, Wilson and Farmiga once more bring their A game and it’s thanks to their stellar chemistry that the film stays afloat amidst its weaker story moments. O’Connor (The Spanish Princess, Handsome Devil) is also great, conveying the immense psychological burden Arne carries as he wrestles with the dark force inside of him, and Hilliard (The Haunting of Hill House, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) once more shines as an adorable little boy beset by paranormal predators.
As for those evil forces, they’re largely forgettable, and don’t deliver that thick sense of dread so memorable from the first two Conjuring films. The Devil Made Me Do It has no clapping game or Valak painting to hang its hat on as its “Iconic Scare.” The waterbed scene so heavily featured in promotional materials is decent, but the overexposure eliminates any sense of suspense or surprise. The continuous story also means there’s no secondary demonic figure lurking about, a la Annabelle or the Crooked Man. The human nature of the villain isn’t a bad route to take, as a Satanic witch is always inherently scary, but she’s not all that difficult to take down in the end, nor does she leave much of an impression. You’re more likely to remember the plethora of homages to past horror films that Chaves inserts far too often, The Exorcist and The Shining being the most noticeable. It’s fine to borrow imagery and pay tribute, but if what sticks in your audiences mind the most from your film are nods to other, better movies…that’s a problem.
Chaves was faced with a difficult task, and should be applauded for stepping into Wan’s shoes to follow-up two of the most well-received horror films in recent years. He’s a fine director, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t bad by any means. There are solid performances, some great shots, and a decent score from series veteran Joseph Bishara. Put in context with the other spin-offs in the Conjuring Universe, it’s a respectable middle of the pack entry, but it’s nowhere near the edge-of-your-seat nightmare machines that Wan directed. Terrible? No. Average? Frustratingly so. It’s certainly not a death-knell for the franchise, but you do have to wonder if it’s worth further films if this is what they’ll look like. I guess when the devil makes you do something, it should be no surprise if it ends up damned.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror