The Conjuring 3

‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ Review: This Franchise Needs an Exorcism

It pains my horror-loving heart to concede that The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is simply fine. It’s not great and it isn’t terrible. Instead, it lands in a liminal space of sorts, a movie that feels uncannily like a mainline entry in The Conjuring franchise without quite being so. There’s something consistently off-kilter about the experience no different than one of the series’ trademark spooks floating hazily in the dark. Audiences might think they see something they recognise, but upon closer inspection, the spook is gone — it wasn’t really so. 

Fortunately, the movie wisely handles what, at least in my eyes, was its most damning element; the true story upon which it was based. Adapted from the real-life trial of Arne Cheyanne Johnson whereupon Johnson became the first person in the United States to argue demonic possession as an affirmative defence, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t nearly as irresponsible as the marketing led me to believe. 

Arne Cheyanne Johnson was deeply mentally ill, a fact compounded by lacklustre mental health infrastructure and opportunistic demonologists desperate to elevate their own clout. Satan didn’t kill Alan Bono (named Bruno Sauls in the movie), Arne Johnson did. He stabbed him. Dozens of times with a five-inch pocketknife. The Warrens unsuccessfully tried to have him acquitted by reason of demonic possession, though Johnson was ultimately convicted, serving five years of his 10-to-20-year sentence. 

The preceding two entries certainly played it fast and loose with the truth, though in both the Perron and Enfield hauntings, no one was physically hurt. Mileage varied, and the unabashed spiritual sentimentality of the Warrens wasn’t for everyone (largely on account of how irreconcilable their filmic counterparts are with the real persons), but the ostensibly “true stories” were innocuous enough to work. 

It isn’t perfect here — there is no doubt The Devil Made Me Do It believes the Devil made Johnson do it– but the movie wisely has the Warrens fighting not for his acquittal, but merely mounting a defence to help Arne avoid the death penalty. It’s all considerably less icky than Warner Brothers’ promo interviews with Johnson would have audiences believe. Ethics, though, do not a movie make, and while it’s certainly respectable, the only successful thing conjured here are fonder memories of the previous two entries. 

It can be difficult to determine what it is exactly that James Wan does to imbue his scares with such visceral, tactile terror, the kind that send audiences gripping their armrests and flying from their seats, though whatever it is, it’s not simply lacking, but altogether nonexistent here. Consistency and a sense of place might be the most likely explanation, or at least the one that best applies to The Devil Made Me Do It

With both The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, the Perron farm and Enfield home respectively were familiar. Wan spent enough time establishing the spatial constraints of the homes and the families that occupied them, his scares felt like organic extensions of the central settings. Wan’s build toward his scares was structurally no different than Chaves’s are here, but the intimacy with which audiences knew the people and places rendered them considerably more impactful. They were molasses-like in development, frequently unpredictable by sheer dint of the spatial awareness. When the scares are tethered to one setting, the audience is in an enduring state of anticipation. 

Chaves, meanwhile, largely expands the scope of the Conjuring franchise, jumping between towns, homes, a nocturnal copse, and prisons. The scares are consequently less organic and more contrived, vignettes that exist for slow-pans and boogeyman pops. The procedural elements are arguably– perhaps, most definitely objectively– stronger, if only for how different they feel. It’s Chaves in an element all his own, not simply his second outing (see: The Curse of La Llorona) at Wan-mimicry. Flattery is certainly sincere, but it’s also second-best. 

Director Michael Chaves certainly has a distinct visual eye, and he makes great use of it here, including some stellar day-to-night clairvoyant transitions and some haptic camerawork to signify possession. He also ably draws wonderful performances from his cast, most notably John Noble’s Kastner. Farmiga and Wilson were sure things, though it’s nice to see the supporting cast adroitly match their expectedly strong performances. 

And really, it’s the Warrens that save the movie. Farmiga and Wilson are so enduringly likeable that, even in its worst moments of exhuming the corpses of better movies, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It somewhat works. It’s never boring, and The Conjuring by way of Law & Order, at least in theory, isn’t a terrible idea. It’s Halloween store hokey — Lorraine inserts herself into criminal investigations, uttering lines such as “Your people can’t see what I do” with papal conviction — but it works reasonably well. As divergent plot threads converge, the intensity does mount, and it’s not for nought that The Devil Made Me Do It is both the most violent and dangerous Conjuring entry yet. 

Long-delayed on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is a welcome, though veritably uneven, reunion with horror’s favourite demonologists. Wholly deficient in actual scares, this Devil still manages to conjure some genuine pathos and bone-crunching thrills. A stark departure from what came before, Michael Chaves does enough right to keep some life left in the long-running, soon to be $2 billion franchise. Like Ed’s heart here, though, the franchise now has a stent. Whatever the franchise conjures next, let’s hope it’s enough to sustain life.

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