James Wan was really onto something when he brought the Warrens to the big screen with The Conjuring. Wan may not have known it at the time, but he was launching one of the most successful horror franchises ever, and the secret to the series success remains the ghost-hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, as played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The Warrens were real people who claimed to be real paranormal investigators, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest they were delusional at best or downright frauds at worst. No matter. We’re not dealing with the real Ed and Lorraine in these movies. We’re dealing with something better. And it’s Wilson and Farmiga’s performances that truly seal the deal.
The Warrens, and Wilson and Farmiga, are back yet again for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and whatever the film’s flaws, Ed and Lorraine remain the guiding light we’re continually drawn to. As long as Wilson and Farmiga keep coming back, I hope they never stop making these movies.
Like the previous two Conjuring movies, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It bills itself as “based on a true story,” and sure, that’s technically correct. But while The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 dealt with ghosts and haunted houses, The Devil Made Me Do It risks entering the land of bad taste by focusing on a murder that actually happened. In 1981, Arne Cheyenne Johnson was arrested for stabbing his landlord to death. When Johnson went to trial, his lawyer offered an eyebrow-raising defense: Johnson was possessed by a demon at the time of the murder.
Mining an actual murder for Conjuring material is a somewhat questionable idea, but The Devil Made Me Do It skirts around this by going so far into the territory of the implausible that any resemblance to real events goes out the window. “Yes, this is a little tasteless,” the movie seems to be saying. “But there’s no way anyone can take this seriously.” None of this is a knock against the movie, mind you. The outlandishness is part of the fun.
While the demonic murder defense starts The Devil Made Me Do It, the film does not turn into a horror movie courtroom drama, a la The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Instead, the murder serves as an excuse to send Ed and Lorraine Warren on the road to get to the bottom of this spooky mystery, Scooby-Doo style. It’s a change of pace for the series, and thankfully, it (mostly) works.
As The Devil Made Me Do It begins, the Warrens are doing what they do best: helping out a family besieged by the supernatural. The poor Glatzel family is going through some things as young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) has been possessed by demonic forces. The Warrens are on hand to help out with an exorcism, but things go south pretty quickly. Also present at the exorcism is Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), who is dating David’s older sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook). When the Warrens fail to get the situation under control, Arne takes matters into his own hands and demands the demon possessing David to leave the boy and climb into him instead. The demon obliges, and not long after, the possessed Arne stabs his drunken landlord Bruno (Ronnie Gene Blevins) to death.
Director Michael Chaves, stepping in for Wan (who helped come up with the film’s story), stages the murder scene entirely from Arne’s warped perspective, and we watch as the young man is confused and terrified as the evil forces inside him twist his perception and torment him into committing the terrible deed. It’s effective, disturbing stuff, but you also can’t help but watch it and remember that a real murder happened here (David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick‘s script changes the murder victim’s name, presumably to avoid offending anyone). The murder is one of several creepy set pieces that Chaves handles well here. The most memorable involves the Warrens on an after-hours trip to the morgue where the corpses are restless and the lights have a bad habit of turning off just when the Warrens need them – it’s a delightfully spooky scene that will make you squirm.
Locked up and awaiting his trial, Arne is still tormented by demonic visions, and the Warrens are called in to help figure out what’s going on here. After doing some snooping around the Glatzel home, the Warrens quickly determine that David and Arne’s possessions were not some random occurrence. Instead, the Glatzels, and now Arne, are being targeted by someone skilled in the art of black magic. It’s up to the Warrens to find out who – and stop them.
After this solid set-up, The Devil Made Me Do It occasionally grows a bit murky. While the Arne Johnson story is the catalyst here, Arne himself feels almost forgotten as the film proceeds. Sure, there are occasional scenes where we see Arne tormented in prison, but he feels completely secondary, almost as if he’s in a totally different movie. And not a very compelling one, either. It’s much more interesting to spend our time with the Warrens, especially when they encounter the film’s villain. Rather than a demon nun or a ghostly witch, the enemy in The Devil Made Me Do It is a living person. She’s a mysterious figure known as The Occultist, and while having the Warrens go up against a real person as an adversary feels slightly strange, it ultimately works thanks to the performance of Eugenie Bondurant. Bondurant strikes a creepy figure with a scowling face and a gaunt figure, and while the character’s motivations never really make sense, Bondurant manages to make her a genuinely creepy presence.
Having the Warrens snooping around like Mulder and Scully and pitting them against a human villain turns The Devil Made Me Do It into a kind of mystery movie; a ghostly detective story, even. This could’ve gotten real silly real fast, but by now, you’re either on board with the Warrens or you’re not. It’s easy to buy into the paranormal investigators turning into amateur detectives because Wilson and Farmiga are so damn good at playing these roles. They feed off each other’s chemistry, and it’s a treat to watch them work. Farmiga in particular continues to shine here, managing to sell corny lines with gusto. And the ongoing love story between the two characters remains the glue holding all of this together. The Warrens love each other unconditionally, and there’s something sweet and wholesome about these two good people who still have the hots for each other even after all these years of chasing ghosts and ghouls.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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