The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
The Conjuring franchise is an interesting beast. Following the success of his 2010 blockbuster horror hit Insidious, James Wan took the reins of The Conjuring in 2013 and essentially set the new standard for what contemporary mainstream horror would be. A handful of Insidious sequels and a bunch of Conjuring spinoffs later, “the Wan style” of horror is now ubiquitous: creepy kids, recycled jump scares, semi-interesting camera movements, loose attempts at character arcs, and demons standing in the background behind unwitting characters. The two franchises have even begin to stylistically and thematically homogenize—The Conjuring 2 feels practically like a redux of the first Insidious film.
Wan’s influence on big-budget horror was a flash in the pan, spawning countless copycats over the course of a decade, but has waded into obsolescence with the recent rise of “indie” horror from studios like A24 and filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. These films reach for higher, weirder forms of horror, attempting to either say something beyond the scares, or at least scare you in ways you might not have been before. Looking back, once-heavyweights The Conjuring and Insidious already feel quaint and dated where they seemed almost groundbreaking only a few years ago.
But the Conjuring franchise chugs on. In addition to this weekend’s third main entry in the series, The Devil Made Me Do It, there are still tentative plans for a follow-up to 2019’s prequel The Nun, as well as a spinoff based on The Conjuring 2‘s Babadook-copycat monster “The Crooked Man.” Being that those plans were made well before the pandemic threw a wrench in literally everything, it’s uncertain if those two will actually happen. But it’s always been the core films—the ones with Conjuring actually in the title, centered around real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren’s adventures—that have been the most worthwhile anyway, and we have a new one on our hands. This marks the first in the main trilogy not directed by Wan himself, so how does it do, as the latest to carry the torch of Wan-esque horror?
The film takes its name and loose plot beats from the real-life “Devil Made Me Do It” murder trial of Arne Johnson in 1981, the first known court case in the United States in which the defendant claimed innocence by way of demonic possession. I won’t be cross-examining the film against the historical events it’s based on, but it seems worth noting that this was probably the most high-profile caper of the real Warren’s careers.
The film opens on the Warrens attempting to exorcise a demon from 11-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). When the demonic resistance proves too powerful, Ed (Patrick Wilson) suffers a heart attack and is unable to complete the procedure. David’s sister’s boyfriend Arne intervenes, grabbing David and commanding the demon to leave David and take him. Weeks later, when Arne murders his landlord without apparent motivation, Ed and Lorraine find themselves attempting to gather evidence for a court of law that Arne was actually innocent, and that the Devil made him do it.
Devil moves more like a supernatural detective mystery than a straight horror film, which is a welcome change of form, given the repetitive nature of the franchise’s scares at this point. Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) is at the height of her apparent supernatural powers, effectively able to read minds, live out others’ memories in a given location, and sense locations of demonic activity on the fly, like a radar from God. It’s beyond hokey at this point, especially when combined with the franchise’s insistence on reminding us that these stories are all based on real-life events.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga bring it, the best they can, but there just isn’t a ton to do here. Their relationship remains the most interesting part of these movies, but even still, their shared arc feels more like scraps to be lapped up in the face of starvation, rather than a hearty meal. The rest of the cast does what they can with a script that isn’t outright-bad so much as uninteresting.
James Wan’s replacement, Michael Chaves, makes a slightly pretty but empty film, with a villain who’s barely present, and even less scary when she’s actually around. I’m not convinced Wan would have done any better with it.
Hilariously enough, the film barely spends any time on its most marketable point—the case’s prominence as the first US court case to claim demonic possession as a defense. We don’t actually see the court case happen, and pretty much every reference to the Warren’s mission of convincing the legal system to “accept the existence of the Devil” is in the trailer. The results of the real-life case are presented in the form of text cards at the end of the film.
To Devil‘s credit, it spares us the franchise’s most irritating compulsion: tying in future or previous films. It’s a self-contained story that seems to neither set anything up nor definitively draw a close to the Warrens’ story. And I’m thankful; the franchise’s need to connect each film to one another has become laughable, going so far as to suggest supernatural events from one film are the direct result of the demons from prequels and spinoffs that take place decades prior, like some sort of real-life interconnected universe of demons whose sole purpose is to give the Warrens more work. (The Nun is the worst of these offenders, taking up loads of setup time in Conjuring 2 and painting the Warrens’ cases in the first two films as the long-impending results of a Romanian convent’s demonic infestation in the ’50s, only to bore us to tears when it comes time to actually retell those events on screen.) Granted, I don’t think the actual Warrens were so bold as to claim that their prominent cases were all so cosmically intertwined, but it just further exacerbates the farcical nature of these movies masquerading as retellings of true events.
But aside from the smart choice of not threatening us with unwanted spinoffs, there just isn’t a whole lot to say about Devil. It’s a movie with a story that happens. I’m literally struggling to come up with words here.
Will there be more Conjuring films? I dunno. Wilson and Farmiga are getting plenty of well-deserved work elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if WB experiences diminished returns on this entry. Should there be more Conjuring films? I’d vote no. It’s apparent with Devil that this franchise has nothing new to offer us, if it ever did. The few scares here are pulled almost directly from previous films, and little in the way of impressions are left by any of the characters or monsters. In a world of Hereditary‘s, In Fabric‘s, and Get Out‘s, the Conjuring movies feel all the more out of their element and under-par. The frequency of jump-scare complaints among moviegoers has reached an all-time high, and I’m just not sure how long a franchise built on such frights can go on at this point. But I could be misreading the audience here; maybe there’s still a market for it. It’d be all for the better for the genre if this franchise decided to close up shop, but if WB decides to pump out these movies every few years until the end of time, they can always cite the time-honored defense, “the money made me do it.”