If asked to name successful non-comic book movie franchises, you’d probably think of “Mission: Impossible,” “Saw,” or “Jurassic Park.” It’d take a while before you landed on “The Conjuring.” Having spawned spin-offs such as “The Nun” and the “Annabelle” series, the horror universe that began by outlining the cases of the real-life paranormal investigative husband and wife duo, Ed and Lorraine Warren, has now grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide.
Now, the Warrens return, yet again, in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” A cup of haunted house, a dash of demonic possession, and a splash of Satanism make up the concoction for the third feature in this series. Michael Chaves’ new horror, however, isn’t nearly as frightening nor as narratively exciting as its ingredients would have you believe. In fact, it’s a flat overcooked dish.
This latest installment begins intriguingly enough: Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are double-teaming a rather extreme case of possession. In fact, it’s the worst they’ve ever seen. In an opening with major callbacks to “The Exorcist,” David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), a seemingly amiable little boy, can’t shake the demon within him. Even when a priest arrives to exorcise him, David succumbs to bouts of body horror whereby his tiny frame contorts in hellish shapes. Help comes to David when the teenage Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) asks the demon to take him instead. The flurry of events set the table for the real-life incident that inspired the film: Arne’s spirited defense in the 1981 “Devil Made Me Do It” trial.
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“The Conjuring 2”), the third installment veers into detective story territory. Following the grim night with David, Arne feels unwell: He’s cold, hears voices, and sees a ghoulish apparition lurking in the shadows. His hallucinations cause him to brutally murder the boss of his loving girlfriend Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook). During his murder trial, for his defense, the Warrens suggests a case of demonic possession as the actual culprit. With Arne’s life hanging in the balance, the paranormal couple tracks the clues that’ll hopefully save the young man.
Along the way, the strong thematic ties of mortality and love provide support. Ed suffers a massive, near-fatal heart attack that not only limits his abilities but also pushes Lorraine to the forefront. Her character strikes an odd balance in this story. Johnson-McGoldrick wants to demonstrate Lorraine’s strengths away from her husband: Before inspecting a creepy crawl space Ed warns that she’ll ruin her dress, to which she offers a sly smirk. On multiple occasions, however—at the morgue, in the woods, and at a secluded cabin owned by John Noble—Lorraine needs her husband to save her. It’s a weird contradiction that Chaves is incapable of totally smoothing.
While “The Conjuring” films operate under the assumption of the Warrens as truth-tellers (more on that later), their love has never been in doubt. In fact, it’s always been the strongest element of this franchise. Johnson-McGoldrick and Chaves explain how the couple first met in sequences that are hokey but work well in Wilson and Farmiga’s assured hands. Running parallel to the Warrens’ fairy tale love story is Arne and Debbie’s romance, which doesn’t come close to instilling the same wholesomeness. Rather, they exist as an afterthought, totems of young love, in the face of our familiar fleshed-out heroes.
The terrors in this “Conjuring” are run of the mill due to the film lacking the technical and storytelling proficiency to create real shocks of fear. The body horror isn’t particularly gruesome: The crunch of bones cracking barely makes an audible dent. While the pretzel-shaped bodily positions narrowly rise above internet fodder. A necessary atmosphere of foreboding is lacking from Arne’s possession scenes: It’s one thing for a character to say they feel cold, it’s another for the audience to feel it, too. Rather, O’Connor’s performance is filled with surface-level characterization, obvious choices by him that struggle to bring us into Arne’s psychological turmoil.
The Satanism aspect also lacks sufficient dread because the mystery is so solvable, the emotional reasoning so thinly sketched. The entire proceeding carries an all-too inevitable air. To the point that the dramatically inert specter of Ed’s failing health and Lorraine’s conflicting invulnerable vulnerability, makes the final showdown, in a generically utilized Satanist lair, ho-hum. The entire film leaves you yearning for less investigation and more investment in the contours of the occult premise.
Even the ending will have audiences clawing for something more. There’s a mid-credit interview with the Warrens from the ’80s that poses a moral quandary: The interviewer asks what the danger would be if others used the same defense of demonic possession. Wouldn’t such a legal argument permanently pose a threat to the criminal justice system? It’s a major unforced error to flag the moral failing of your film in the closing minutes. But Chaves does so. See, “The Conjuring” backers would never affix that intellectual incongruity in the central script. That would require these movies to introspectively inspect the Warrens rather than serve as their mythmaking agents, to make doubt rather than full-throated belief the central conceit. It would also mean the end of the franchise.
But rather than make the more interesting movie, Chaves and Johnson-McGoldrick kick the can down the road toward the next money-making sequel. Which would be totally welcomed if the “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” weren’t so artistically inert, and oh so boring. [D+]
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on June 4.