Review of “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

I usually go to the theater closest to my house. There used to be two, each from a different chain, but when the mall closed the theater there closed as well. I like the remaining theater (I’m a member of their loyalty club and subscription service) although it could use some updating and maybe add their version of IMAX. They are continuing their reduced times for certain films. For instance, if it’s R-rated or an adult drama, the first show won’t be until 4 pm. Kids films and big-budget blockbusters get showings starting at 1 pm. Unless it was in the “Star Wars” or “Avengers” universe, most pre-pandemic matinees were usually not very crowded but still had showings starting at noon or one. Since my choice for this week’s viewing was not until 4 pm at my closer location, I decided to drive across town (probably in the 15-to-20-mile range) and see a 2:15 pm showing of “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” Was it worth the time, travel and gas to see the latest installment in the questionable history of ghost hunters and demon fighters Ed and Lorraine Warren?

The Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are assisting a Catholic priest in the exorcism of 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). Also on hand are the boys’ parents, his sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook) and Debbie’s boyfriend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). Things become far more dangerous when the possessed boy jumps on Ed Warren and causes him to have a heart attack. Arne grabs the boy and tells the demon to leave David alone and take him. The demon accepts the offer and invades Arne. Ed witnesses this but his heart attack leaves him unconscious. A few days later, Arne and Debbie, who live in an apartment over a dog kennel owned by Bruno Sauls (Ronnie Gene Blevins), are discussing running away and getting married when the demon fully possesses Arne and he kills Bruno, stabbing him 22 times. Ed Warren has had heart surgery and is well enough to tell Lorraine what his saw. They go to Arne’s lawyer and try to convince her to plead diminished capacity due to demon possession. Under the Glatzel’s house, Lorraine finds a witch’s totem made from an animal skull used to pass on curses. The skull is like ones used by a satanic cult called the Disciples of the Ram, a cult that has committed murders in the area. A former Catholic priest, Father Kastner (John Noble) helped the police investigate the cult and the Warrens visit him for his advice. Arne is looking at the death penalty if he’s convicted so the Warren’s are hoping to find a connection between the cult murders and Arne’s crime to convince the court of his possession.

I’ve seen several, but not all of the “Conjuring” franchise. Oddly, the last film I watch from the series was the original “The Conjuring.” It was a well-crafted, tightly constructed haunted house horror flick that hit most of the right notes. It’s no wonder it kicked off an entire franchise with numerous spinoffs and sizable box office success. But as usually happens with high-performance machines, things break down over time. Perhaps people get complacent and expect the dollars to roll in and the audiences to buy tickets no matter what kind of product gets released. Maybe the creators are tired and hand off their duties to others of lesser skill. It could be viewers have grown weary of the hocus pocus and paranormal adventures of the Warrens. I think it is perhaps more of the first two than the latter as “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is still the winner of its opening weekend at the box office despite being the weakest entry in the “Conjuring” trilogy.

The film is far more scattered than the first two entries. Ed and Lorraine travel from location to location, eating up a great deal of time with shots of the car travelling down various roads. There are incidents that occur in different places, from the possession/exorcism to the murder committed by Arne, to an investigation of a similar murder in another town, etc., etc. This spreading around of the action never lets the film build any real tension. While it certainly tries to convince the audience of terrible things to come when those terrible things happen, they aren’t that bad. Certainly, the murder of Bruno is a horrific thing, but it isn’t shown as it happens. Another murder is shown as Lorraine sees it in a vision, hence again indirectly. Moving from a haunted house to a traveling curse does this film and the franchise no favors.

Another thing I found troubling about the film is the story doesn’t follow its own rules. Without giving too much away, to complete the curse at the center of the plot, there must be three deaths: The murder of a child, a death by suicide and the killing of a man of God…at least, I think. The story doesn’t make these rules completely clear, so I suppose it makes sense that it doesn’t follow it closely. There are four deaths that are shown, directly and indirectly, on screen and that should be more than enough to satisfy the curse, yet it doesn’t, and I don’t know why. That troubles me, and it troubles me that it troubles me as it’s a dumb horror film trying too hard to make us believe the Warrens were legitimate.

The film begins with the ubiquitous “Based on a True Story” panel as the movie kicks off. In the least restrictive use of the term, it is, but there are numerous and substantial changes and additions to the story far too numerous to get into here. The books and TV shows inspired by these “true” events have generated a few lawsuits between the participants and the Warrens. The real David Glatzel claimed in one such lawsuit the Warrens had concocted the possession to exploit the family and his mental illness. I could not find how that lawsuit turned out. And the Warrens were accused of making up possessions and hauntings in the past, such as the famous Amityville case. For what it’s worth, the real Arne and Debbie, who got married after Arne served five years of a 10 to 20 years sentence for manslaughter, both claim everything the Warrens said was the truth. All these films must be taken not just with a grain of salt, but an entire salt mine.

The only bright spot in this film are the leads, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. They have a comfortable chemistry befitting a long-married couple that have been through some strange things. The movie adds a bit of flashback to their first date that becomes an important plot point later. Farmiga and Wilson treat all the paranormal silliness with the gravitas that makes the good installments of these movies better than they should be and the lesser chapters bearable.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is rated R for terror, violence and some disturbing images. I’m not sure why it got an R rating as the film has very little gore and only one truly disturbing image, that of the reanimated corpse of a post-autopsy fat man. We also see a throat slashed, an attempted suicide by wrist cutting, the sounds of bones cracking as a possessed person contorts and the first stab of a murder. There is no foul language I recall.

The entire “Conjuring” universe of films has grossed close to $2 billion and this eighth film in the franchise is likely to push it over the top with more installments on the way. What I fear may happen to this franchise is what appears to be going in this film. The storytelling is getting messy. There are very few good scares. And the biggest sin of all, this movie is dull. I love a good horror movie. I like to be scared and squirm in my seat, feeling my heartbeat race as I fear the next bump in the darkened theater. I got none of that with this film. Pay Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson whatever it takes to keep them coming back as they are the only things good in this installment.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” gets two stars out of five.

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