The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
112 Minutes • Rated R
Starring Patrick Wilson • Vera Farmiga • Ruairi O’Connor
Story by James Wan and David Leslie Johnson – McGoldrick
Screenplay by David Leslie Johnson – McGoldrick
Directed by Michael Chaves
Review by D. S. Ullery
Before I get to the actual review, I’m going to address something that’s been hovering over the entire The Conjuring franchise since James Wan’s brilliant original was released in 2013: The actual history of Demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.
For every statement of praise these movies receive on social media, there’s always some retort posted informing everyone the Warrens are con artists and these movies are an exercise in shame for painting a pair of frauds in a positive light.
I can’t offer any insight into that aspect of this cinematic universe. I know of the Warrens and I’ve read about their work, but I wasn’t there and I don’t know them personally. Any opinions in their favor or against them are based on experiences I wasn’t personally a witness to, so as an objective, critical observer, I approach the films the same way I would the Amityville Horror flicks: Perhaps they began with a grain of real-world inspiration, but it’s pretty obvious they used that to create a mostly fictitious, heavily dramatized series of motion pictures meant for entertainment value.
So my approach when evaluating these movies isn’t to go into them ready to shred them apart because I have contempt for the real Ed and Lorraine Warren. I don’t. I’m apathetic towards them. Consequently, I view these strictly through the prism of their quality as horror cinema.
One final observation on this topic before I get on with it: I find it ludicrous there are people who shamed The Conjuring and its first sequel for depicting the lives of the Warrens, then jumped online and demanded Jeepers Creepers 3 be made/released, despite the director of that film having been convicted of paedophilia. If people are so willing to separate the art from the artist in that capacity, it seems reasonable to afford this franchise the same regard. Just some food for thought.
On with the review.
As horror movies, The Conjuring films are, in my opinion, the best of the best in the subgenre of paranormal/haunting stories. The original was the movie that finally knocked Tobe Hooper’s superb Poltergeist out of the number one spot on my list of all-time greats of this type. I was more than a little surprised to discover that I found the sequel to be an even better film a few years later.
Much of that has to do with the skilful direction of James Wan, who guided both films with an assured sense of purpose, delivering strong storytelling while providing memorable scares. The films also enjoyed a tremendous boost from the perfectly cast Patrick Wilson ( one of my favorite actors working today) and Vera Farmiga as, respectively, Ed and Lorraine Warren. It’s these two characters who provide these movies with their soul as we follow their love affair through the terrifying experiences they face while helping people besieged by evil, otherworldly forces.
Adversely, I am not a fan of the Conjuring spin-off universe. I‘ve found the spin-off films lacking in the grace, style and wit of the two core movies about the Warrens.
When I learned James Wan wouldn’t be returning to direct the third film in the original series (which dropped the standard “3” in the title for the far more compelling The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) and would be replaced by The Curse of La Llorona helmsman Michael Chaves, I was disheartened. Second sequels ( or threequels, if you prefer) often have a history of being the moment when a franchise starts its downward slide in quality.
To learn a talent as gifted as James Wan would be replaced by a man whose only existing feature credit up to that point was my least favorite film in the entire Conjuring cinematic universe did not instill in me a great amount of confidence. After researching the response to this news by other fans online, I knew I wasn’t alone in my apprehension.
Well, you can put your mind at ease, horror fans. Chaves apparently learned a lot between projects, because he’s delivered a solid sequel that stands on its own as a commendable, worthy addition to the franchise.
The film opens in 1981, with Ed and Lorraine Warren performing an exorcism on an eight-year-old boy named David Glatzel in his family home. It’s an electrifying opening sequence that’s equal parts absorbing and scary as hell. Things go sideways fast and spiral out of control, resulting in Ed suffering a nearly fatal heart attack in the middle of the chaos. This leads to witness Arne Johnson (an outstanding Ruairi O’Connor) – the boyfriend of David’s older sister Debbie- interceding and demanding the demonic force leave the boy and enter him.
It seems to work. Ed is transported to the hospital and life for the Glatzels returns to normal for a few days.
Then Arne begins to experience strange phenomena, such as shadows skittering across otherwise empty rooms and objects moving by themselves in his presence. This culminates in a confrontation with a dark force, resulting in something evil taking up residence inside of him.
Not long after, Johnson and Debbie Glatzel (an immensely likeable Sarah Katherine Hook) find themselves at the boarding house where they live and she works, helping the landlord/her boss fix his stereo. The malevolent force begins to twist Arne’s perception and, before long, the landlord is dead, having been stabbed by Johnson 22 times.
The police arrest Johnson and a frightened Debbie approaches the Warrens for help. Vera is initially reluctant, as Ed is still recovering from his heart attack, but they eventually decide they can’t turn someone in need away. They conduct a test on the accused and quickly realize that whatever force may have compelled him to commit murder is gone. However, Ed witnessed Johnson inviting the demon in to save David while his heart was failing during the earlier exorcism, so he knows something was inside of the young man at some point.
Thus begins the Warrens’ involvement in what would come to be known in very real headlines across America as “The Demon Murder Case” – the first court trial where the plea of the defendant was not guilty by reason of demonic possession.
If you think I’ve given away too much, believe me, I haven’t. Everything I just described is merely the set-up for the true meat of the story, which is the investigation into the case and the terrifying discoveries the Warrens make regarding its direct connection to a local cult.
The cast is excellent across the board. Wilson and Farmiga have never been better and the story this time around allows us a glimpse into how they first met. Their devotion to one another is front and center and their amazing chemistry sells it. In many ways, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is as much a love story as it is a horror thriller.
O’Connor is excellent as Arne Johnson, as is Hook as Debbie. It’s a strength of the film that we’re allowed to empathize with what this young couple are going through. There’s a moment late in the movie where Johnson is in his cell and he’s attempting to defend himself from what he knows is an impending demonic onslaught. It struck me during this scene the film had done such a terrific job of establishing him as a relatable character that what was going on had emotional stakes.
Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson – McGoldrick delivers what turned out to be my personal favorite narrative of the three films, working from a story credited to himself and James Wan (Wan is also on hand as a producer, so he was still involved creatively with the project on some level). I loved the writing in this is the way Johnson – McGoldrick slips moments of genuine wit into the movie. A terrific example of this is a scene wherein Ed, Lorraine and Debbie are staring down into a dark, creepy storm cellar, knowing someone has to go down to investigate. Ed doesn’t want his wife going in, but Lorraine refuses to allow her recovering husband to do it, so she tells Ed to hold her purse as she takes the initiative. It’s a funny, unexpectedly warm moment that grows naturally out of what we know about the characters and it works. There a number of moments like that (a conversation about Elvis springs to mind). These movies may not be comedies, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be humor. Johnson – McGoldrick understands that.
Joseph Bisharsa – who composed the music for the first two – returns, utilizing familiar thematic motifs from the previous films while adding a unique, eerie ambience to the proceedings. Bishara always delivers top-notch scores for his projects and this is no exception.
Huge kudos as well to cinematographer Michael Burgess, who uses the visual pallette to create a persistently spooky, ominous atmosphere. From showers full of blood, to the cold indifference of a morgue and into some creepy underground tunnels, his camera masterfully paints each scene with colorful layers of dread.
But the revelation here has to be Michael Chaves, who surprised me with his solid handling of this material. I really didn’t like The Curse of La Llorona and, as I watched this film, I was astonished they share a director.
Chaves has a real eye for knowing how to set up a scare, and as the film progresses, he mounts some of the best-sustained sequences of the trilogy to date, including my favorite, a late-night visit by Ed and Lorraine to a county morgue that blurs the line between reality and Lorraine’s visions with a degree of skill I haven’t seen onscreen since Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street. If Wan chooses not to return again and they want to tap Chaves for the next outing, I’m all in. I feel he redeemed himself here and proved he has the chops for the job.
Having made those observations, I will say there are two factors that work against The Devil Made Me Do It. They’re the reason that – while I genuinely enjoyed the film and think it’s definitely better than most other paranormal flicks out there- I think it falls just shy of the high bar set by its predecessors.
One is the heavy reliance on jump scares in the first half of the film.
Look, I love jump scares. I don’t agree with the acrimony towards them that seems to have developed in the horror community. Some of the most memorable moments in horror film history are jump scares. When they’re executed properly (and, for the most part, the ones in this film are) they can be brilliant.
But for a little while there, it seemed as if this movie was going for the jump shock every few scenes, including one eye-rolling moment where they even set up Debbie entering the frame as a jump scare. That can only go on so long before it begins to be a distraction and, yeah, that kind of happens here. The film is fortunate both the story and characters are so compelling as to make it worth staying with. If it had failed on either of those levels, this would have been downright irritating.
Wisely, this is balanced out as the investigation begins to deepen and they learn what’s happening with the Glatzels and Johnson may be connected to other crimes. At this point, the film slides back into the style of the first two, moving away from the jump scares into longer, more sustained sequences designed to further immerse us in the story and cultivate tension, maintaining this approach until the final credit roll.
The other thing I have an issue with is the “based on a true story” line. They need to just stop this. It worked with the first film because that one was still relatively grounded in its approach to the Perron haunting, one of the most well-documented, real-world paranormal cases on record (ironically, the actual case involved purported events even more intense than what made it into the film).
But right around the time the Crooked Man showed up in The Conjuring 2, it became blatantly obvious we’re a long, long way from any chance these events actually took place. This new entry takes us even further away from the possibility these stories are anything but the creation of the screenwriter.
The Demon Murder Case did happen. Arne Johnson did kill his landlord. The Warrens did investigate it. A plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession was entered. That’s about as much reality as this film can lay claim to. I have absolutely no doubt that, in all other regards, this is a work of complete fiction. Moving forward, the studio should just go with “This film is a work of fiction inspired by an actual case.” These are terrific horror films, so just let them work as terrific horror films. Stop trying to sell them as something they’re not.
Despite a reliance on jump scares in the first half and a bewildering determination to keep selling these films as true stories, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It acquits itself as an effective entry in what I consider the best paranormal horror series out there. It does suffer a bit in comparison to the pair of outstanding motion pictures that came before it, but I’d still put it a cut above just about any other film of it is type. I had a lot of fun with this one and I think most fans of the series will as well.
Smart, scary and given a strong emotional boost by the ongoing love affair between the two still extremely lovable protagonists at the center of it all, The Conjuring The Devil Made Me Do It rates a well-deserved **** out of ***** stars.
D. S. Ullery is a cartoonist and an author of short Horror fiction. He’s published two single-author collections and his ongoing comic panel Goulash can be found on Webtoons Canvas. An Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association, D.S. resides in South Florida, where he shares an apartment with a reasonably unstable feline named Jason, a black cat born on Friday the 13th.
You can read D.S’s ongoing comedy/horror comic series Goulash HERE
You can buy Highway 181, Duane’s most recent horror collection HERE