‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ Review: Warrens’ Love Story Can’t Overcome Rote Horror Beatby Emma Daniel Content Writer The latest ‘Conjuring’ movie is always missing more interesting questions in favor of jump scares and tired horror imagery.
When going into any of The Conjuring movies, you first have to make some major concessions. You first have to accept that these are highly fictionalized versions of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). The real Warrens were allegedly scumbags. You have to believe that the supernatural stuff they’re fighting is totally real and that any skepticism will be obliterated even though that raises tricky questions about those who would fake supernatural abilities or argue for the existence of demons. You basically have to embrace The Conjuring movies as a ride, and you’re happy to go along with this loving couple who fights evil to restore domestic bliss to those they meet.
But by the time you’ve come to The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, there’s not much life left in this franchise between the Warrens’ love and devotion to each other. And yet even here, you have a film that constantly refuses to question any of its tenets, so it simply feels like another episode of a series rather than a sequel that builds or expands The Conjuring universe is any way. For those looking for the brand of horror these movies provide, they’ll probably be sated, but you can’t shake the feeling that this franchise has become too staid to be scary.
In 1981, Ed and Lorraine are overseeing an exorcism of a little boy, David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) is the boyfriend of David’s older sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook) and wants to protect young David, so during the exorcism, he demands that the demon take him instead, and the demon obliges Arne. Ed witnesses the transference but suffers a heart attack and loses consciousness before he can tell anyone what’s happened. Arne, for some reason, also tells no one of this transference, which becomes a problem when he ends up stabbing Debbie’s boss to death. With Ed recovering from his heart attack, the Warrens set out to prove that Arne was under a demonic possession at the time of the murder, but it’s a race against time as there’s a Satanist out to destroy not only Arne but Ed as well.
The strong core of these movies is and remains the relationship between Ed and Lorraine. Not only do Wilson and Farmiga have excellent chemistry together, but it’s ultimately the argument for everything they do. The Warrens, through the strength of their marriage, represent a domestic tranquility that they seek to restore wherever they go. The random evil coming for a family can be picked out of a hat (the villain for The Conjuring 2 was changed in post-production to give you a sense of how little the specifics of the antagonist mean to these movies), but it’s up to the Warrens and their inherent, unquestionable goodness, that comes to restore peace to families. In the case of Arne Johnson, he both mirrors the Warrens in his love for Debbie as well as risking his personal safety to protect a family when he takes the demon from David. The Devil Made Me Do It seeks to test the marriage of the Warrens, but as always, these tests are external and demonic rather than internal and complicated.
Obviously, there’s a fun escapism at work here that’s contributed to the franchise’s success. It’s comforting to believe that there’s an external evil that can be defeated if you simply know the right way to do it, and that you can depend on morally uncompromised characters like the Warrens to save the day. But the simplicity of the text shows that the series is basically running on fumes. Sure, you can keep spinning off new monster movies like Annabelle and The Nun, but the core story about the Warrens doesn’t have anywhere to go because The Devil Made Me Do It shows the filmmakers have clearly settled into a formula whether it’s James Wan, or in the case of The Devil Made Me Do It, Michael Chaves at the helm. And there’s certainly something to be said about horror cinema that’s also oddly comforting, and The Conjuring series manages to slide right into that odd niche.
But at some point, we expect horror to elicit some kind of fear or anxiety, and The Devil Made Me Do It studiously avoids any deeper conflict than having the Warrens fight some new kind of evil. For instance, the film’s 1981 setting coincides with the Satanic Panic, and yet The Devil Made Me Do It’s world argues that Satanists are very real and very here to ruin your life. How does this story fit into a framework that argues for an evil that, in reality, came from paranoia and moral panic? The Conjuring movies rarely question the validity of any claim. Ed and Lorraine have their beliefs, but their beliefs always tend to reinforce the investigation, so it’s like two Fox Mulders on the case and sometimes you really need a Dana Scully to hold the dramatic tension. Instead, The Conjuring movies always work from a premise that supernatural evil is real and must be combatted. This evil typically manifests as something that jumps out and makes a loud noise.
We’ve seen that story twice already and hinting at a court case in The Devil Made Me Do It is pretty much a dead end since we never really see any trial here. This is a new case to solve with the trial of Arne Johnson providing a framework rather than a plotline. It’s the reason to send the Warrens off on a new investigation rather than trying to make the argument that what they do is admissible in a court of law. Of course, putting the Warrens’ beliefs on trial would in effect be putting them on trial, and that brings us back to the central problem that these movies simply do not want to challenge their heroes with anything that isn’t supernatural.
What makes The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It so bewildering is that it offers up fresh avenues to take the series and challenge both the characters and the audiences, and it simply opts for more of the same even with a new director. The filmmakers have settled on “This is what a Conjuring movie is,” and while that may be comforting for fans and profitable for the studio, it’s not horrifying or thoughtful in any meaningful way.
Review: The devil can’t make you watch this so-so ‘Conjuring’ sequel
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All hell breaks loose early and often in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” A creepy old Connecticut house shudders in the grip of demonic forces that shred the wallpaper (an improvement, honestly) and tear at the body and soul of an 11-year-old boy, triggering acrobatic contortions so violent they make Linda Blair’s head spins look like hot yoga. If “The Exorcist” seems by now too obvious a point of reference, it’s one this movie nonetheless invokes, first when an old priest arrives on this misty night and later when a heroic young man dares the devil to abandon the poor boy and take him instead.
The devil gladly complies, vacating the body of young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) and seizing hold of his older sister’s boyfriend, Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). But Arne, rather than hurling himself to his death, lives on, now hosting a demonic parasite that takes its not-so-sweet time making itself known. Jump scares galore ensue, blowing your eardrums and filling the screen with jack-in-the-box apparitions and hallucinatory washes of red. By the time Arne is arrested for the brutal murder of his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins), the movie has already laid out its case, aptly summed up by the title.
Proving it in a court of law will be a trickier matter, one that naturally falls to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), that God-fearing, ghost-busting duo who have given these movies their romantic pulse and spiritual oomph. In this latest movie, directed by Michael Chaves from a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, they set out to prove that Arne is not guilty by reason of demonic possession — a tricky task that will bring them into contact with all manner of fellow true believers and professional skeptics. (The fine ensemble cast includes Keith Arthur Bolden, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Eugenie Bondurant and especially John Noble as a delectably strange priest turned paranormal expert.)
Like its superior predecessors, “The Conjuring” (2013) and “The Conjuring 2” (2016), “The Devil Made Me Do It” was ripped from one of the Warrens’ real-life case files, this one centered on a 1981 murder trial that they successfully — and none too scrupulously — turned into a cause célèbre. Whether you regard the Warrens as righteous spiritual warriors, wily hucksters or both, their self-promotional acumen has never been in doubt, as the mere existence of these movies amply demonstrates. (Ed Warren died in 2006; Lorraine Warren, who served as a consultant on the series, died in 2019.)
As a rule, the words “based on a true story” should trigger any viewer’s skepticism; that’s even more the case when a movie is as straight-faced in its presentation of supernatural events as these are. Not that you had to believe a second of the first two “Conjuring” movies — both directed with pulse-quickening intensity by James Wan (who’s credited as a producer here) — to find them wildly entertaining, especially since stories about possessions and hauntings are predicated on a shivery suspension of disbelief to begin with. If the illusion is slower to take hold in “The Devil Made Me Do It,” it’s because of the heightened moral stakes — the question of a man’s guilt or innocence in the matter of a monstrous crime — as well as the movie’s more workmanlike approach to shocks and scares.
Chaves made his feature debut with “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019), one of several feature-length offshoots, like “The Nun” and the “Annabelle” movies, in the increasingly tangled “Conjuring” franchise. (I think we’re supposed to call it a universe, but some directives, like the devil himself, should be resisted.) Chaves is a solid craftsman with a weakness for easy jolts, but also a gift for filling the frame with strategically unnerving pools of light and shadow; he can turn even a daylit room into something ominous and suggestive. He also orchestrates a memorable flashback to young David’s first encounter with evil, a scene that will make you grateful that waterbeds went the way of the dodo.
What Chaves doesn’t demonstrate so far is anything approaching the kinetic virtuosity of Wan’s filmmaking, his ability to send the camera skittering up and down hallways and stranding us alongside the characters in a labyrinthine fun house of horrors. To some degree that’s the right approach for this particular story, where the real antagonist isn’t a haunted house but rather a curse of mysterious and exceedingly malicious provenance. Ed and Lorraine have admittedly broken a lot of curses over the years, amassing a storehouse of creepy dolls and tchotchkes in the process (as referenced in one of the movie’s slyer punchlines). But nothing they’ve done has quite prepared them for this case’s swerve into satanic cult worship, blood sacrifice and other forms of occult deviance, all of which operate by their own outlandishly sinister rules.
It’s in the parsing of those rules that “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” hits the occasional sweet spot, if less consistently or surprisingly than its predecessors did. Narratively speaking, the most pleasurable aspect of these films is the way they function as paranormal detective stories, knottily intricate puzzles in which the battle for the human soul also becomes a battle of wits. That’s another reason why the Warrens — at least as played by Farmiga and Wilson, making the most as always of their retro-nerdy-sexy chemistry — are such an endearing detective duo: They’re Nick and Nora with less banter and more holy water.
It helps, of course, that the Warrens come off as committed (some might say committable) do-gooders and that you never catch them, say, eagerly negotiating book and movie deals mid-trial, as their real-life counterparts are said to have done. That’s not the only time “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do it” stacks your sympathies in favor of Ed and Lorraine, never more risibly than with sepia-toned flashbacks to their original meet-cute — the beginnings of a love story to make audiences swoon and demons shudder. Here, and not for the first or last time, the power of kitsch compels you.
Watch reviews and streaming The Conjuring 3 and A Quiet Place 2:
Created on Jun 6th 2021 19:41. Viewed 198 times.
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