Movie Review: ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ Stays Afloat Thanks to Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson
Director: Michael Chaves
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard
Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren take on one of the most sensational cases of their careers after a cop stumbles upon a dazed and bloodied young man walking down the road. Accused of murder, the suspect claims demonic possession as his defense, forcing the Warrens into a supernatural inquiry unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
2013’s The Conjuring is my favorite horror film of at least the last decade. It felt like a reinvigoration of the haunted house movie with great characters and effective scares. While the film’s first direct sequel did not reach those heights in 2016, it was still a fun and heartfelt entry. With The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the downward slide continues while still containing enough intrigue to be a serviceable horror viewing.
As the rather awkward title might suggest, this entry is a bit different than the previous two. Rather than helping to vanquish demons terrorizing a family in a specific home, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) traverse from location to location in an attempt to prove a man innocent of murder. The catch is that they must do this by proving the existence of paranormal forces at play.
This all takes off from the beginning of the film when the Warrens must help exorcise said demon from a young boy named David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard.) Things go awry when the demon travels from David’s body to that of Arne Johnson (Ruiari O’Connor), the boyfriend of David’s sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook). This opening scene represents a central tacit of the main Conjuring series that is actually pretty similar to a certain franchise about fast cars and family, and that is to get more ridiculous with each successive film.
One of the major strengths of The Conjuring was its ability to tell a wild ghost story while remaining as grounded as possible. The CGI-heavy ending of the second film sort of threw that practice out the window, while this go-round rips the band-aid off almost immediately. The first scene features a priest being knocked out by flying dishware, devilish eyes appearing in the faces of two characters, and most of all, David’s body contorting in ways that even the characters from The Exorcist would find extreme.
Still, the bulk of the film is not about this exorcism, but rather Arne’s experience with possession. This reaches extremes when it leads him to kill his landlord and subsequently be charged with murder. When it’s determined that the judge will seek the death penalty in his case, the Warrens go into detective mode to somehow prove that Arne was possessed. These early sequences tie directly to both the best and worst aspects of the film.
Let’s start with the worst. The Warrens clearly have a number of “cases” to draw from for the plots of these movies. It’s easy to see why this particular story was chosen for the third film, as it was indeed a high-profile case that gripped people with its bizarreness. However, even the briefest of research will show that certain details of the incident and the overall case were tweaked for the film in order to paint Arne in the best light possible. Of course, they must find some way to help us connect to a character charged with murder.
Now the issue here is not necessarily about what the subjects of the film were truly like, whether that’s good or bad. Many of the Warrens’ claims have been proven as false cash ploys, but these films are clearly going for entertainment value over critical and accurate portrayals of the pair. I’ve never considered their real-life status as a strong criticism of the films. The problem in this particular case is that someone truly was killed, and the film never reflects on that in its attempt to draw sympathy for the suspect. In short, this may not have been the best Warren story to tell without a bit of challenging exploration into the true nature of the case.
The strong aspect that results from this, however, is the opportunity to focus so heavily on Ed and Lorraine for much of the film. The movie is as much a romance as it is a horror in this way, and it completely saves the film from being a failure. Farmiga has always delivered such strong performances in this series, and that is no different here. That can be said for Wilson as well, but he’s given the chance to be much more vulnerable than before in this outing (similar to what Farmiga received in the second film). What results is possibly his best work in the series to date, even if the plot is sometimes lacking in comparison.
One can certainly applaud the story in the film for taking a different direction from previous entries, though it rarely results in superior sequences. The jump scares have become decidedly predictable, the supporting characters are stock in nature, and it does not take any unique directions visually. Aside from some chilling moments from the true villain of the film, played by Eugenie Bondurant, there’s not anything here that will keep me up at night. That’s certainly the biggest loss from the exit of James Wan as director, though new helmer Michael Chaves does deserve credit for maintaining the strengths of the two leads and taking on what is probably the most difficult story in the series.
It’s impossible to ignore that these films are now part of a cinematic universe. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the original and is noticeably below the first direct sequel, it’s still far above most of the other entries in the franchise. I was able to look past the blemishes largely because the investigative mode taken on by Farmiga and Wilson is so amusing, and the relationship between the characters is undeniably charming. The two performers have taken advantage of these tales to build the characters from the ground up. It helps to maintain what has always been the thing that sets The Conjuring series apart from many other horror films: I can’t help but love Ed and Lorraine.