If you’re looking for more of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) traipsing around haunted housed, you’ll get that in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. But this isn’t quite the same spook-fest as the previous films in the wildly successful horror franchise. In what looks to be the third and possibly final entry, the married demonologists are more detectives than ghostbusters in a case that imagines an entire fiction around a landmark murder trial. Being “based on a true story” has been the conceit from the start, and we know from history to give the side-eye to any movie claiming it. The result is decidedly mixed here, even if our love for the Warrens’ unique blend of religiosity and paranormal investigating holds firm against the devil’s whispers.
The film begins in exhilerating fashion, with the sort of demon-possession madness that has made these movies such a frightening thrill. Some malevolent spirit has taken hold of young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), leading to some bonkers body horror of the Linda Blair variety and a lot of smashing of things in the family’s Connecticut home. Who ya gonna call? Ed and Lorraine Warren, of course! Along with a musty old priest (my first instinct was he looks ripe for a demon-induced heart attack), they battle the evil entity but are overmatched by its power. It takes a selfless act by Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the boyfriend of David’s sister (Sarah Catherine Hook), to save the day. He invites the spirit to take him over instead, which it gladly does. But there is a cost.
Ed, who was preyed upon viciously by the demon, suffers a massive heart attack and is a shell of his old, virile self. Patrick Wilson always does virile quite well, so it’s interesting to see him so frail throughout most of the film, with Farmiga really picking up the physical slack. The demon, now possessiong Arne who is apparently just okay with all of this, eventually succumbs to its influence and murders their drunken landlord.
Or did he? The Warrens are brought in again to make the movie title relevant, marking the first time in U.S. legal history that a defendant pleaded not guilty by way of demonic possession. Good luck proving that in a court of law, or as the defense attorney rightfully asks before being introduce to the possessed doll Annabelle: “How can you convince a jury when you can’t even convince me?”
Whether you believe the real-life Warrens were actually in touch with the supernatural or not, the cinematic versions believe in this stuff wholeheartedly. That puts this film in a unique position to the prior Conjurings, where they have to prove more than whether the presence of the devil is real, but whether it caused someone to do evil. That speaks to a side of human frailty that the previous films have never had to touch on before. We also see that highlighted by Ed’s fragile state. The Warrens have never seemed more like real, flesh and blood people, facing a force that is anything but human. Of course, being human also gives the Warrens a strength that helps them endure, and endears us to them even more.
A problem with such unshakeable faith is that it presents something of a missed opportunity. We see the posession from David’s perspective, all grisly monsters and jump scares and eerie visions, so there’s no question he’s under the control of an evil force. Casting a little uncertainty would have served the film well, especially since we are dealing with a case that is grounded in the legal system. David faces the very real threat of being put on Death Row. Is he truly worthy of the Warrens’ dedication?
While James Wan has directed the first two installments, he steps aside in favor of filmmaker Michael Chaves. Chaves’ cred comes from The Curse of La Llorona, a Conjuring spinoff with Latin flavor that proved divisive enough that some no longer consider it part of the same universe. He gets the nuts and bolts of it, but goes the extra mile with a heinous-looking bloated corpse, some gross ratplay in a crawlspace (nothing good EVER comes out of the crawlspace), and a near-drowning experience on a waterbed. What’s missing are Wan’s craft for nailing the period aesthetics. The film is set in 1981 but it doesn’t really feel like it. Wan, who has directed action movies such as Aquaman and Furious 7, could turn that energy into menacing tension better than almost any director around. Chaves doesn’t quite have that gift; his skills are efficient and do the job to make a satisfying Conjuring movie.
But none of this matters without Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Lorraine and Ed. Considering the ghosts and gore they dabble in, there’s something so pure about them that breaks through the darkness. We see more of their meet cute origin story, and it’s every bit as “aw shucks” wholesome as expected, and only serves to ground them further as the Ozzie & Harriet of the occult. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is rooted in love between the Warrens that helps them triumph over the unholy, a fitting way to bring their do-gooding days to a close.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It opens in theaters and HBO Max on June 4th.