In many ways, I consider the first two existing Conjuring movies the gold standard of horror movies. By casting Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, the material is automatically elevated a certain amount by grounding the story (to a degree) in reality, thus making the scares resonate all the more. The Warrens have always been some of my favorite movie characters because they aren’t fearless—they’re fully aware of the dangers of each situation they investigate and they lean heavily into Lorraine’s psychic abilities and Ed’s faith to combat evil, as opposed to simply charging into a situation blindly.
In the long-delayed third installment, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Warrens take on the most terrifying and unstable force known to humans: the U.S. judicial system circa 1981, as they aid in the defense of a young man named Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), who is on trial for murder and would likely face the death penalty if convicted. Arne helped the Warrens when his girlfriend Debbie’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) little brother David (Julian Hilliard) was possessed by a demon and the Warrens were called upon to facilitate an exorcism, a process that is detailed in gruesome and painful detail in the film’s opening moments. In an act of desperation to save David, Arne calls upon the demon to take him instead (never a good idea), which is exactly what happens. Nobody but Ed notices this transition, but just as he’s about to warn everybody else involved, he has a demon-inspired heart attack.
While Ed is still recovering in the hospital, Arne is going through some changes and his demonic possessor pushes him to murder a friend of his, stabbing him 22 times. Naturally, Arne remembers none of it, but the Warrens insist on meeting with his lawyer to float the idea of using demonic possession as an actual defense in a courtroom. Ed makes the very strong argument that the court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears on a bible, so now it’s time to flip that coin over and accept the devil as real as well. The lawyer is skeptical until the Warrens invite her over to their house for dinner and a tour of their artifacts room. (“We’ll introduce you to Annabelle,” says Ed.) I would have paid extra money to see that dinner, which is sadly held off camera.
The Warrens also discover that the house where Debbie and David lived was actually cursed by a satanic cult, which made it much easier for a demon to make its way into their lives, so a great deal of The Devil Made Me Do It is a mystery about figuring out any details about the cult and their elusive leader (the wonderfully freaky Eugenie Bondurant). To do so, they call upon a former priest (John Noble) who made such cults his specialty and could perhaps offer advice on breaking said curse.
This time around in The Conjuring world, James Wan (the director of the first two installments) is only involved as producer and is given a story credit. Instead, we get Michael Chaves (The Curse of la Llorona), working from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who also wrote The Conjuring 2), and while there are a couple of really terrifying set pieces, too much of The Devil Made Me Do It is exposition, without digging any deeper into the personal mythology of the Warrens. I don’t believe we’re meant to take everything that happens in the film literally, of course, but there was something scarily believable about large portions of the first two films—something that is missing from this latest chapter, which is a shame because the legal definition of being possessed is a radical and interesting idea worth exploring.
The bigger issue (as it is for any horror movie) is that this is easily the least scary Conjuring movie of the three, which wouldn’t bother me as much if the story were more compelling. (I will admit, there’s a sequence set in a morgue that scared the bejesus out of me.) Farmiga and Wilson are the only reasons I felt invested in the outcome of the movie, but outside of Ed’s deteriorating health, they felt more like characters with powers than actual human beings. Ed being derailed brings Lorraine more front and center, but the film (and Ed) would rather risk him dying than simply let Lorraine be the lead for too long.
Even an attempt to give us the Warrens’ origin story (in flashbacks to their first meeting), falls short when it’s not fully explored. That being said, I would love to see a film about their first time agreeing to take on the agents of Satan as a couple. Their daughter Judy (Sterling Jerins) is barely in their lives, and their personal assistant Drew (Shannon Kook) registers as little more than a gofer. But outside of some text given to us as the film concludes, the use of their research in the murder trial is barely mentioned. Typically, The Conjuring movies run more than two hours, but The Devil Made Me Do It clocks in at under two hours, and I almost wish there had been more; it feels truncated and suffers because of it. Still, the film is artfully made, in the same way an expert art forgery is—it’s clear that Chaves has studied the previous films and replicates certain elements quite beautifully. But it feels less about the love and soul that the Warrens share and use to fight the world’s evils and more about generic spookhouse tactics.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It opens in theaters Friday, June 4.
Third Coast Review is one of 43 local independent media that are members of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance. You can help #savechicagomedia by donating to our 2021 campaign. Support every outlet or select your favorites to receive your support. Thank you!