For a relatively long time, producers, film executives and marketing teams have rode their movies on the wave of the “this really happened” promise; hoping it will help deliver some new form of commitment by the audience. In the Conjuring franchise it’s clear that such a promise is used in hopes of delivering a few extra chills down the spines of the, well, gullible. It’s a collection of movies that plays pretty fast and loose with the facts, such as they are. Which sort of feels fitting with the central subjects: the self-described demonologists and paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, no strangers to accusations of playing things fast and loose, to put it graciously. So why not tweak a “true” story where the so-called truth is likely dubious? The Devil Made Me Do It, the third entry in this franchise, deviates even further than its predecessors, fabricating a whole fictional narrative around a real case. Yet such deviation from the events aren’t exactly dramatic improvements from what actually happened: the sensational trial of Arne Johnson, who made history and headlines by insisting in court that the was under demonic influence when he stabbed his landlord to death.
No, this movie isn’t exactly a courtroom drama, as kooky as that would be. But this disappointing sequel does stray a little from the template set by James Wan’s two predecessors. The Devil Made Me Do It begins the way those movies ended: with unholy forces operatically rocking a haunted house. The Warrens (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have arranged an official exorcism for a young boy named David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), who starts playing a wild game of Twister once the praying begins. It’ the kind-hearted Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), fiancé of the kid’s older sister (Sarah Catherine Hook), who lures the culprit out with an offer to claim his soul instead. And within a few weeks, the demon comes to collect, taking control of the young man’s stabbing arm, landing him squarely behind bars, and sending the Warrens on a defense-building mission of crime-scene clairvoyance.
Wan, who’s been apart in some way in all the franchise entries, has a story-by credit this time around, and the film might have benefitted more from his presence behind the camera rather than have his formulaic plotting. His Conjuring entries were efficient symphonies of cheap funhouse tricks. This time around Michael Chaves, who previously orchestrated the jolt-filled trash-heap that is The Curse of La Llorona, takes the reins. But Chaves has none of Wan’s malevolent mojo, his talent for wringing shivery from every spring-loaded appearance by the franchise’s growing roster of apparitions. He instead delivers set pieces filled with premature puncturing of tension.
Holding some things together still are Wilson and Farmiga. The two remain to have a wholesome appeal to their take on the Warrens, sleuths of God with superhero skillsets and the dorkiness of youth ministers. They’re so overly square that they almost come back around to being cool. This time around they face off against an occultist (Eugenie Bondurant) who’s pulling the strings on the supernatural doings that struck the Glatzel family. Set in the early ’80s, the film looks to tap into that era’s wave of destructive satanic panic, and dapples in these waters uncritically, with not even the faintest interest in both the truths truths that came with such misguided panic and the possibility that Arne might not even be possessed.
There’s almost no real subtext in The Conjuring, either, which can be oddly refreshing in how so many movie monsters these days are very obvious in their metaphorical ramifications. In this unambiguously Catholic franchise, good is good, evil is evil, and there’s no in-between. What even the better entries in the series fail to approach, though, is anything resembling genuine moral danger — the hint of temptation or doubt. For all the talk of souls at stake, Wan’s bottomless clown car of shadowy phantoms poses almost only a physical threat, to the point where they can even be tackled or shot with a gun. It’s the difference between a well-oiled machine of a horror move and a horror movie that genuinely gets under your skin. The Devil Made Me Do It is neither, no matter how much and how mechanically it trots out the jack-in-the-boxes tactics of the films that came before it. The Devil Made Me Do It sets out to tweak the franchise formula yet somehow figures a way to still be blander; diluted by the brainlessness and lacking of ferocity.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is available to stream on HBO Max and is currently playing in Theaters nationwide, as of June 4