for terror, violence and some disturbing images.
Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Julian Hilliard, Charlene Amoia, Sterling Jerins
Peter Safran, James Wan
Warner Bros. on
Beware the third installment of any series. For even some of the best-conceived and executed franchises, the third time is often not the charm. It's when things start to fall apart. It's when ideas dry up. It's when the creators, writers, and directors find themselves regurgitating past hits in an attempt to keep things going. The genre is irrelevant; it's difficult to name more than handful of titles when #3 is a worthy entry. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It doesn't buck the trend. During the course of the film's 112-minute unspooling, there's a sense that the premise is running out of energy and that, at least insofar as these characters are concerned, the best is in the rearview mirror.
Although The Devil Made Me Do It is officially the third Conjuring movie, there have also been five spin-offs, bringing the franchise total to eight. Previously, there was a clear division in quality between the main-line films (The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2) and the ones featuring Annabelle, The Nun, and The Crying Woman. The Devil Made Me Do It brings the Warren stories (those featuring Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren and Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren) more in line with the second-tier satellites. It's an adequate horror movie with the requisite atmospherics and jump-scares, and it provides Conjuring fans with their fix. However, as the latest chapter of what is now a trilogy, it's a disappointment.
As with The Conjuring and its first sequel, The Devil Made Me Do It bears the "based on a true story" label. Since the filmmakers are significantly more interested in crafting a tale with things that go bump in the night than in making a documentary, it should come as no surprise that considerable liberties have been taken with the facts of the case. Drawn from the files of the (deceased) real-life Ed & Lorraine Warren, this one takes place in 1981 and focuses on the murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor), whose defense is that he is "innocent by means of demonic possession." The Warrens, who are present at the time when the possession occurs, are brought on board to investigate. Ed, recovering from a heart attack, is limited in what he can do so Lorraine takes the lead and the couple relies heavily on her clairvoyant abilities. They learn that Arne's possession is the result of a curse cast by the mysterious Occultist (Eugenie Bondurant) and there's more at stake than an innocent/guilty verdict.
The Devil Made Me Do It opens with a prologue and first act worthy of its predecessors. The exorcism of eight-year old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) pays homage to The Exorcist in several of its particulars, including the opening image of a man approaching a house. This segment of the film is eerie and effective with echoes of a powerful evil as it introduces the concept that, despite all their knowledge and experience, Ed and Lorraine aren't immune. The exorcism is seemingly successful but the post-possession lull doesn't last. It soon becomes apparent that the demon has passed from David to Arne. It emerges to commit murder in a blood-drenched scene that makes use of the Blondie song "Call Me."
By abandoning the haunted house setting of the first two Conjuring movies - an approach that kept everything constrained and used the locale to amplify the horror - The Devil Made Me Do It spins out of control, splitting up the main characters and sending them on wild goose chases that pay minimal dividends. The ultimate villain is disappointing and the final confrontation is anticlimactic. Putting aside the prologue exorcism, there's little in the movie that could be considered frightening. (Although, if you have a pathological fear of rats, there is one scene with Lorraine on her hands and knees in a crawl space that may require a few moments' diverted attention.)
One of the unsung pleasures of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 - an element not found in any of the spin-offs - is the chemistry between actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The affection and companionship of Ed and Lorraine comes across in the performances and, in addition to exhibiting a genuine emotional bond, the characters radiate competence. If I was going through a possession, I'd want them on the case. The Devil Made Me Do It relies less on the connection between Wilson and Farmiga than on cheesy flashbacks (with younger actors - Mitchell Hoog and Megan Ashley Brown - playing the roles) to emphasize the depth of Ed and Lorraine's love for one another. It's a clumsy misstep.
Although both Wilson and Farmiga have returned to the series, there are significant behind-the-camera changes and these may have had something to do with the drop-off in quality. James Wan, the director of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, stepped down in favor of his hand-picked successor, Michael Chaves (who made the 2019 spin-off, The Curse of La Llorona). While Chaves shows ability in developing a sinister tone, he is less sure when it comes to maintaining a white knuckle, edge-of-the-seat sensibility. Writers Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes have also moved on. One can't help but wonder whether these substitutions are a key component in moving The Devil Made Me Do It away from the high level of its forerunners and more into the realm of generic 21st century horror. Whatever the cause may be, the magic previously enjoyed by The Conjuring movies has failed to materialize for this journey into the supernatural.
© 2021 James Berardinelli
Cinemas About Town