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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Review of “Annabelle Comes Home”

After an investigation, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) bring the doll called Annabelle to their home. Lorraine figures out the doll is a beacon for spirits and the Warrens put it inside a special display case, made with glass from church, and blessed by a priest. Once the display case door is locked, Lorraine can tell the evil is contained. The display case is in a locked room along with the most dangerous items the Warrens have collected during their years of investigations. A year later, the Warrens are leaving for an overnight investigation. Their 12-year old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) will be watched over by a babysitter named Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) who will spend the night. Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) reads a newspaper article questioning whether the Warrens are frauds and learns of their paranormal past. She arrives at the Warren house after they leave with an agenda: Her father has recently died, and she hopes to contact his spirit using items from the Warren’s collection. Because of the newspaper article, Judy is being bullied at school and her friends are refusing to come to her upcoming birthday party. Judy is a sensitive to spirits like her mother and is seeing the ghost of a dead priest watching her at school. Daniela finds the keys to the locked collection room and looks around, touching numerous items and asking for a sign there’s a spirit present. Annabelle moves forward and bumps into the glass, getting Daniela’s attention. She unlocks the case and puts Annabelle back in her chair, but she forgets to lock the display case door. When she leaves the room, Annabelle again leans forward and this time, she escapes. Soon, everything in the collection room begins causing trouble for Daniela, Mary Ellen and Judy.

“Annabelle Comes Home” is the seventh entry in the “Conjuring” universe of films. Annabelle, along with the Nun, are the two big bads that have spun off into franchises of their own. Perhaps we’ll get a team-up film where the two demonic entities join forces to try and defeat the Warrens. But that’s another movie for another day. “Annabelle Comes Home” almost manages to overcome its genre conventions and tell a decent story with some scares thrown in to keep its fans happy. Sadly, almost is only good enough in hand grenades and horseshoes, and “Annabelle Comes Home” gives up the ghost as the inevitable happy ending approaches.

The main themes of the film are loss and acceptance. Katie Sarife’s Daniela is dealing with the loss of her father in a car accident. She is desperate to reconnect with her dad and get closure following his sudden passing. Her desire for contact overrides her doubt about the paranormal and her fear of the unknown. She abandons reason and safety to find peace and comfort. You see the same thing happen when the grief-stricken attempt to drown their sorrows with alcohol and/or numb their feelings with drugs. In all those examples, the pain remains, and the outcome isn’t good.

McKenna Grace’s Judy is being ostracized because of her parent’s work. She’s considered a freak and is the target of bullying at school. Judy is in a tough spot as she is about to enter her teenage years, hit puberty and get her first glimpses of adulthood. Adding parents that are the targets of public scorn and suspicion adds a nearly intolerable level of pressure for such a young and sensitive girl. Judy and Daniela begin an unlikely friendship, finding comradery in their different struggles. It’s this bonding, along with Mary Ellen, that forms the backbone of the story.

This exploration of female friendship and shared struggle is actually well done and engaging, considering this is a horror movie. The three don’t blame each other for the trouble they are facing (despite Daniela’s actions being the cause) and work together to contain Annabelle. They form their own little non-traditional family when there’s no one that can help them.

McKenna Grace gives a wonderful performance as Judy. She’s calm in the face of all the weirdness and uses what her mother has taught her about the spirit world to guide Mary Ellen and Daniela through the danger. Grace has a poise and maturity one might not expect for a 13-year old. She’s believable as the already experienced ghost buster and her character lacks the precocious snark that might be added in a less well thought out script.

While the story of female empowerment in the face of demonic threat is well done, the final act undoes most of the good work that sets it up. Director Gary Dauberman, who co-wrote the script with producer James Wan, falls back on haunted house scares in an overstuffed finale. Several things in the Warren’s collection get a moment in the moonlight as the film turns up the attempted scares per minute to maximum. I say attempted because nothing much in the film causes the pulse to quicken even a little bit. An early scene with spirits coming from a graveyard is effective, but that’s about all that managed to startle me. The movie does a good job of building tension but never quite pays it off, then it throws everything at the audience in a frenetic ending that becomes tiresome.

“Annabelle Comes Home” is rated R for horror violence and terror. There are some blood-covered ghosts, a werewolf, a horned demon, corpses with coins on their eyes and the spirit that guides them to the afterlife, the ghost of a priest with very dark eyes and a cursed suit of samurai armor. We see part of an exorcism, a stabbing, a werewolf tries to kill a character, a ghost pukes itself into the mouth of another character, a demonic TV shows a bloody future for one character and a demon tries to suck the soul out of a character. There is also some ghostly throwing of characters in various scenes. Foul language is mild and only occurs two or three times. Why the film got an R rating is a mystery.

Looking at my review of “Annabelle: Creation,” I have many of the same opinions about that film as I do “Annabelle Comes Home.” Both films have quality performances from young actresses but waste their efforts by building tension and setting up scares, but never delivering quality frights. This film tries to have quantity instead of quality as it throws everything at the audience in the last 20 minutes in hopes to score some scares, but the lackluster boogiemen won’t threaten anyone’s bladder control.

The “Conjuring” films and their spinoffs are wildly successful, taking in a worldwide gross so far of over $1.7 billion on films with a combined production budget of $139 million. That’s about 13 times return on investment. People keep paying to see these films, so the studio will keep making them. I haven’t found any of the films I’ve seen in the series to be very scary and “The Nun” was laughably bad. Perhaps I’m too jaded or too old to be affected by these films the way the makers intended, but scary should be scary no matter how old I get, and this film just isn’t scary.

“Annabelle Comes Home” gets three stars out of five.

A superhero and horror are on tap for the holiday week with both films opening prior to the weekend. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Spider-Man: Far from Home—

Midsommer—

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