THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT
Directed by Michael Chaves
Eight films into the Conjuring Universe, I’m not surprised people are experiencing franchise fatigue. While the better entries, The Conjuring 2 and Annabelle Creation, are among the strongest supernatural horrors of recent years, series low-points such as The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona show they can’t all be winners. Seeing this one employs the latter’s director, Michael Chaves, was an immediate strike against it. Still, with cinema only just reopening, there’s something quite comforting about going back to the big screen to hangout with the Warrens again and seeing a familiar film with a reliable formula.
In a move that seems unquestionably bad taste, The Devil Made Me Do It is a take on the trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson (O’Connor): a young man who killed his landlord, then cited Satan in his defence – he was later convicted of first-degree manslaughter. Just imagine being related to his victim and seeing this silly, sensationalist version of events. Anyway, enter Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga) Warren, who have a professional interest since Johnson’s alleged possession followed that of his girlfriend’s younger brother. Now on the stand, facing the rest of his life behind bars, he turns to these two to defend him. Note that the case was quickly dismissed in real life, so we’re not really about to go into courtroom drama territory. Nor are we in for a sensitive treatise on religious delusions and mental illness, since you can bet both bollocks the answer is something supernatural in this universe.
Generally speaking, the success of these films comes from a combo of well-timed, if highly telegraphed, jump scares plus moments of heart and melodrama. These are not just tales of things that go bump in the night, but also the working/ romantic relationship of the Warrens. The Conjuring 3 is no exception, with some dramatic moments between the two ghost hunters as they remember their past and plan their future. An incapacitated Ed has problems with pride, emasculated by his wife taking centre-stage, but also worries about her vulnerability when he can’t help. Justifiably so, since Lorraine has to go to darker places than usual, putting herself in evermore dangerous situations than we’ve seen so far. Generally, the two of them hang around the sidelines, like Mulder and Scully – witnesses, rather than victims, to malevolent acts. This time they get more involved in the action, making their cuddly scenes more rewarding, with more significant emotional stakes. In this respect, The Devil Made Me Do It is a successful entry for shippers everywhere.
However, it’s perhaps fidelity to the source material that means Arne’s plot is put aside halfway through the film. What you’d expect to be the A story is relegated to the B story – making space for a convoluted and fairly predictable yarn about curses. It’s maybe more like a Ring sequel than a Conjuring one at points: a rural mystery that acts as an origin story of sorts. Second act slump is quite common for movies like this, though here it meanders its way from a personal story into one where the source of evil is too abstract. For a series that’s always done well with its villains, be them Annabelle, The Nun, or The Crooked Man, it’s surprising to see one that’s so characterless and vague. There are some good bits in the mid-section. Lorraine being playful with a sceptical cop adds humour, and a scene that employs Call Me by Blondie is enjoyably creepy. John Noble’s small but significant role as a Satanism expert also shows he can give authority to the silliest lines. Still, these highlights are few and far between.
The first act is by far the strongest, with an exorcism sequence confident enough to reference a certain 70s flick and good enough to justify doing so. Like the better bits from previous outings, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the tensest moment is that which puts a kid in danger. There are also some decent set-pieces, including one with a waterbed. The last twenty minutes recapture some of this magic, with a finale that’s thrilling and touching. Unfortunately, it feels much the same as that of an earlier entry. To be fair, much the same can be said of the intro too. For this reason, The Devil Made Me Do It is like a greatest hits package for a decent band, with some hits: kids in trouble, Warren romance, etc. However, a good few of your favourite singles are missing. Despite this complaint, there’s plenty to applaud. The production values are typically high, with an 80s setting that’s convincing and doesn’t lapse into cliches such as mullets, shoulder pads, and power ballads. The acting is also as good as ever, with Wilson and Farmiga being far more believable than the claims the stuff depicted actually happened. They remain a decent double act that show this franchise isn’t dead yet.