by Jordan King
The ‘Devil Made Me Do It’ case, to which the third mainline instalment in The Conjuring franchise owes its name, represents a landmark moment in American judicial history. On February 16, 1981, in Brookfield, Connecticut, Arne Cheyenne Johnson – allegedly under the possession of a demon he had invited into his body to free 11-year-old David Glatzel and his family from – murdered his landlord Alan Bono in a frenzied knife attack, before being found two miles away from the crime scene in a distant state. In the trial that followed, aided by demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, Johnson’s case for the defense was built on a plea of demonic possession and a denial of personal responsibility. Eventually, Johnson would be found guilty of first-degree manslaughter.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It tells, with embellishment, sub-plots, and jump scares galore, Johnson’s story. Whilst director Michael Chaves continues the series’ beautiful exploration of the romance between Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s Ed and Lorraine Warren in this third instalment in the Conjuring series to great effect, it crucially doesn’t tell enough of the story that inspires its title to fork the same kind of lightning as James Wan’s first two Warren outings.
Director Michael Chaves’ film starts promisingly enough. In a protracted opening sequence, we meet the Glatzel family as son David (Julian Hilliard) is undergoing a viscerally visualised exorcism. With cracking limbs, howling winds, convulsions, and a priest lit by lamplight looking on at the residual home of the Devil, Chaves executes a homage to The Exorcist that sets the tone and then some, nodding to the masterwork of this genre while producing something urgent and legitimately frightening. With The Devil Made Me Do It marking the first big horror release since cinema’s reopened, this opening’s thunderous score and sound design dwarf audiences in the theatre and impose the presence of the Satanic potently.
After the opening however, which gives Ed Warren (Wilson) a literal heart attack and also shows the demonic transference into teenage Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), what follows is markedly less interesting. Aside from the evocatively shot, gialli-like sequence in which Johnson, plagued by visions of a creepy man and a warped sense of reality, slays his landlord, much of Chaves’ film leans heavily on the kind of quiet-quiet-BANG brand of storytelling that Wan’s works artfully veered away from.
As Ed and Lorraine turn detectives, trying to find evidence of the Glatzel family home’s demonic presence as well as Ed and Arne’s own dealings with the Devil, we find ourselves in a repetitious cycle of steeply angled shots lingering on foreboding dark spaces that more often than not house a Satanic symbol and a figure ready to pop up and put the frighteners on us. If not that, then we instead get protracted sequences where Lorraine’s premonitory visions have taken on a life of their own and make already tangled plot threads feel positively knotted – even Farmiga’s unique ability to find the human heart of supernatural spookiness is tested by a carnivalesque parade of grotesquerie.
While Chaves and co have opted to go nuclear and spill evil all over the land with this third film, it seems to me that this third Conjuring film’s move away from the series’ “haunted house” stylised first two films could have been better framed as a courtroom drama (think The Exorcism of Emily Rose), allowing for an exploration of the nuance of Arne Johnson’s trial. The Satanic Panic of the 1980s and this case in particular shook the Warrens as credible demonologists and figures of trust amongst believers, begging questions over culpability, psychological manipulation, and the very existence of the demonic in a world whose reality depends on scientific and evidential proof. Based on the series’ past brilliance at putting family rather than fear at the front and centre of the storytelling, in turn amping up the scare factor immeasurably, it’s a bit of a disappointment to find that Arne Johnson is relegated to the sidelines for much of this film, especially as Ruairi O’Connor demonstrates an intensity in his performance that would have been well paired with the composed, together figures of Wilson and Farmiga opposite him as potential savants. The way that so much of this film instead is given over to well-trodden Satanic iconography, symbolism, and imagery that served more as mise-en-scene for the first two Conjuring movies feels just a little like Wan – who did preside over the story in fairness – passing over the reins to the Conjuring cart so as not to be the centre of blame when the wheels inevitably fall off.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Wilson and Farmiga continue to work wonders as Ed and Lorraine, and with Ed’s health in jeopardy and Lorraine’s visions reaching a fever pitch, Chaves to his credit finds beautifully pitched and placed moments of connection between the couple that remind us of the series at its strongest. A passing over of a handbag before a journey into the unknown, a flashback to a teenage first dance, the sound of one another’s voices leading them back to the light – almost literally – these moments are soul-warming. As are those in which Chaves does trade bombast for nuance, playing with our expectations to remind us that the implied is almost always far more dreadful than the perceived.
Though The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It does in many ways fall short of its two predecessors in the cinematic case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, it still stands above the spin-offs and sidequels as a feature that aims for emotional resonance alongside cerebral thrills. By the time we reach the end, which would act as a lovely gracenote for a trilogy closer, the mark that these films still have a hold over us is the deep-rooted hope that this won’t be the last we see of Farmiga and Wilson together on the big screen.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is out in cinemas now!