By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga and Ruairi O’Connor
Directed by Michael Chaves
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick
New Line/Warner Bros.
In addition to a good horror film, I’m always down for a solid courtroom drama, and THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT promised a crackling combination of the two genres. It’s inspired by one of the most publicized cases tackled by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, in which a young Connecticut man named Arne Johnson murdered his landlord in February 1981 and claimed demonic influence compelled him to commit the crime. The idea of witnesses, including the Warrens, taking the stand and delivering impassioned arguments for and against, based on actual transcripts, filled me with excitement–but sadly, it was not to be. This new CONJURING, like last month’s SAW reboot SPIRAL, instead takes its cues from the procedural form so popular on 21st-century television, like an expanded episode of CSI: CONJURING SUPERNATURAL INVESTIGATION.
Allow me to digress a bit to explain why this is so. In the actual case, the presiding judge rejected the defense’s plea of innocence based on possession, and the subject could not be brought up during the trial (self-defense was offered as an explanation instead). Nonetheless, the Johnson murder and subsequent legal proceedings attracted quite a lot of media attention at the time, and inspired the 1983 TV movie THE DEMON MURDER CASE, with all the names (including the Warrens’) changed and a young Kevin Bacon playing the possessee. So it’s easy to see why this was such an attractive part of the Warrens’ history to the CONJURING brain trust, even though it required quite a bit of fictional extrapolation to fit the franchise’s cinematic standards.
Despite the subtitle, it’s not the devil himself causing all the trouble, but another demon that has taken up residence in the body of young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard from THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and COLOR OUT OF SPACE). The boy’s desperate family has called in the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) for help, and the arriving priest is filmed outside the house just like Max von Sydow was in THE EXORCIST. This is perhaps the filmmakers’ way of acknowledging we’ve been down this road many times before, yet they do deliver one of the best and scariest exorcism sequences in recent memory. As David contorts and howls, the direction by Michael Chaves (taking over for James Wan, who remains on as a producer) is far more vigorous and creative than in his previous CONJURING spinoff THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA. It’s all so intense that Ed suffers a debilitating heart attack, and it ends with Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), boyfriend of David’s sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), calling for the demon to leave the child and take him instead.
Perhaps Arne himself hasn’t seen THE EXORCIST and doesn’t realize what he’s letting himself in for, but in any case he begins suffering frightening hallucinations that ultimately lead him to stab his and Debbie’s landlord multiple times. So far, so close to the facts, but once Lorraine (with Ed confined to his hospital bed for a good portion of the story) has taken on the task of proving that a demon made him do it, the third CONJURING begins showing signs of franchise fatigue. Though there are a couple more strong setpieces (particularly one involving a waterbed), there’s also the sense of too many trips to the well–or in this case, subterranean chambers, a morgue, a spooky prison, etc. One of the strengths of the first two CONJURINGs was their focus on imperiled families in homes that were perverted from familiar, comforting environments to lairs of evil, and their relationships with the Warrens as the couple attempted to save them. Here, Ed and Lorraine aren’t really protecting anyone but functioning as detectives using their investigative (and, for Lorraine) psychic skills to solve a mystery made up of ingredients we’ve tasted before.
Holding it all together are Wilson and Farmiga, who, three movies into the franchise (five if you count their brief appearances in THE NUN and ANNABELLE COMES HOME), have a warm, lived-in chemistry that keeps you engaged with them as people–more so than in the story around them. Watching them work the case together, throwing theories back and forth and bravely venturing where most other people wouldn’t dare tread, is the chief pleasure of THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT. The rest of the actors are well-cast, including FRINGE’s John Noble as a former priest and font of occult knowledge and Eugenie Bondurant (FEAR OF RAIN) as a key threatening figure, and the film is as proficiently crafted as its predecessors. Yet the overall feeling is that if the box office makes them do it again, this team needs to conjure up fresher ways to scare us.