A demonic entity compels a young man to commit murder in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the third film in The Conjuring series that represents a drastic turn in both tone and quality from the previous two entries.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return as real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, but unlike the first two films, this time they aren’t investigating the spooky goings-on at an alleged haunted house. Instead, they’re supporting real-life killer Arne Cheyenne Johnson, trying to prove his innocence through a defense of demonic possession.
Johnson really did attempt to plead not guilty by reason of demonic possession for the 1981 murder of his landlord, Alan Bono. A judge ruled the defense was inadmissible and Johnson was convicted of manslaughter, though he only served five years of a 10-20 year sentence. An impartial presentation of this story would make for a fascinating watch.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, on the other hand, wants us to take the demonic possession at face value. This leads to a narrative where Ed and Lorraine successfully ‘solve’ the paranormal case, which the film struggles to integrate with the facts of the story. I wonder how they explain the rest of the bodies that pile up during this movie.
Unlike the first two movies, which examined famed cases of hauntings that didn’t result in actual murder victims, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It feels overtly exploitative. If the real-world Warrens were hucksters, as many assume, it’s one thing for a mainstream Hollywood picture to promote their ghost investigations, and quite another to advance their demonic theory about a killing they did not witness.
The Warrens did, however, witness the alleged possession of young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), here presented in an over-the-top opening sequence ripped straight from the usual Exorcist playbook: possessed child, body contortions, levitation, objects violently flying around the room, loud crashes on the soundtrack, and an inefficient Catholic priest.
While the Warrens are also unable to exorcise the demon, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) steps in and begs the entity to possess him instead. The Demon complies, and while David is dispossessed, a couple days later Arne kills his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins).
The Warrens support Arne’s legal defense not by offering actual evidence of the possession that they had recorded on camera during the opening scene, but by digging around a completely fictitious backstory about the person who invoked the demon into the Glatzel’s home, and was also responsible for some other unrelated deaths.
In The Conjuring and most of The Conjuring 2 (up to an over-the-top climax), director James Wan displayed an uncanny ability to deliver real-deal scares by playing down the obvious stuff, and slowly building tension while rarely alleviating it through the usual jump scare moments.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, on the other hand, is jump scare city: director Michael Chaves (The Curse of la Llorona) lays out all his cards in the over-the-top intro scene, and continues the theme throughout the rest of the film.
Wan understood that the real terror was in the things that we don’t see on the screen. This film, on the other hand, keeps yelling “Boo!” at us until we just don’t care any more.
But while The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is a dud as the kind of terrifying experience that the first two films provided, it’s otherwise well put-together, beautifully-shot (by Michael Burgess), and genuinely interesting whenever it hints at the real-life scenario behind the film’s otherwise fictional narrative.
And Wilson and (especially) Farmiga are so good as Ed and Lorraine Warren that one wishes these movies presented a more realistic portrayal of their exploits, or at least gave us a hint of ambiguity behind their intentions.