The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

JUNE 6, 2021


You might notice that "Haunted House" is not among the genre tags for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and no that's just not me being lazy. Outside of that waterbed scene that featured heavily in the film's trailers, there really isn't a lot of traditional HH stuff in the film, as it wisely moves away from the template set by the first two Conjurings and opts for something closer to an X-Files/Supernatural type of procedural, with Ed and Lorraine discovering that their new family was cursed and - rather than stay with them and let the usual spookiness occur - they hit the road and try to solve the mystery.

And, while far from perfect, it largely worked like a charm for me. I didn't have a lot of love for Conjuring 2, I must admit; the family wasn't as compelling and it was clear they were trying to recapture the magic of the original despite having less to work with, so trying a new tack was the correct decision if you ask me. Director Michael Chaves isn't as strong a director as James Wan, but perhaps he realized this after Curse of La Llorona (for my money the low point of this universe*) as he barely even attempts to pull off the same kind of hokey (if often effective) scares that are this series' trademark. Instead he goes unnerving bits of violence and a sense of real world menace, which coupled with Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson's always welcome performances and a less made-up story than usual more or less makes up for the reduction in successful jolt moments.

By "less made-up" I refer to the fact that the case it's based on, the one where the film got its silly subtitled, actually did leave a man dead. Whether the culprit was just crazy or there really was some kind of satanic/supernatural explanation for what happened will be up to your personal beliefs, but unlike the previous film's "true story" there is no argument that something resulted in a person losing their life, and his murderer was sentenced to prison for it. That throughline gives the movie more weight than a couple of little girls making things up (or their parents making it up and having them parrot it), which is how you can explain away "The Enfield Poltergeist" and the like. Even the Warrens' real life involvement with this particular event was more substantial than C2's (in which their involvement was so minimal it's not even mentioned in some writeups of the story), as they were familiar with those involved before the murder even occurred.

For those unaware of the story, Arne Johnson murdered his landlord in 1981, later claiming it was possession - but his excuse wasn't out of left field. As it turns out, his girlfriend's little brother David Wetzel was possessed (or "possessed") several months earlier, and seemingly cured during an exorcism, though witnesses (including the Warrens) believe that the demon merely left David's body and entered Arne's. I mean, if you're gonna pin the devil on a murder you commit, it helps to establish the alibi months ahead, right? Alas, in real life the judge refused to buy into any such nonsense, and the trial went on without any introduced evidence of demons or the like, and Arne was convicted of manslaughter after his defense went with a more believable "self defense" excuse. He only served five years in jail and has lived a pretty normal life since, best as I can tell.

The movie spins things differently, obviously, since that wouldn't make for a very engaging two hours (yes, two hours - I was so relieved this one didn't test my patience like C2 did with its 2.5 hr runtime). The courtroom stuff is treated as a kind of ticking clock, with Ed and Lorraine needing to find some kind of proof of Arne's condition to bring before the court or else he will be tried and likely executed for his crime. Their research into the house where David lived reveals a hex, suggesting that the family was not possessed, but cursed, and from there they enter the world of witches and Satanists, discovering a link to another murder, etc. Their adventures ultimately lead them to John Noble (yay!) as an ex-Priest who, like the Warrens, has a locked room full of books and trinkets about the black arts that he keeps in order to keep them out of evil hands.

Eventually the case leads them to another connection to this universe, which I guess could be a spoiler so I won't get into it. Instead I'll just say that the movie works despite seeming like a not always graceful attempt at combining a traditional Conjuring film with one of its spinoffs. Even that aforementioned waterbed moment is kind of shoehorned into the proceedings, as Ed says something like "We need to go back to the beginning," which prompts a flashback of David, one his first day of moving into that house, sitting on the waterbed and getting his little mini-haunted house movie in return. At first it seems like this might be a lengthy round of backstory leading up to the opening scene where he was exorcised, but that's pretty much it. After everyone settles down we return to the present day and pretty much never even see the Wetzel family again other than Arne's girlfriend.

Of course, this might be due to the fact that in real life, David and his brother Carl (who isn't even in the movie) sued the Warrens for exploiting them, so the producers probably felt it was in everyone's best interest to minimize their involvement as much as possible. But again this kind of makes the movie feel a bit scattershot, and also reduces how much our ptotagonists can do their nurturing act - there are no opportunities for Ed to pull out his guitar in this one, sadly. That said we get just as much, perhaps a little more, of how much these two love each other, again making me appreciate that there's a major horror franchise focused on heroes instead of villains for once. During David's opening exorcism (which is a terrific sequence, I should note - super tense and given a small bit of levity with a pretty great Exorcist nod) Ed suffers a heart attack, which leaves him a bit winded and relying on a cane for the rest of the movie, allowing them some cutesiness that worked like gangbusters on me. At one point someone needs to crawl around in a dark basement, prompting Ed to protest that he should do it, only for Lorraine to smile and tell him to hold her purse - it's adorable! And there's a bit about his heart pills that had me practically cooing in the theater; maybe the scares don't always work on me, but I'm an easy mark for a tug on the ol' heartstrings. Still, I would have liked to have seen them bonding with either Arne or the Wetzels a little more.

(Also, for anyone confused why daughter Judy is so much older all of a sudden when their most recent entry was Annabelle Comes Home, I'll remind you that no movie in this cinematic universe immediately follows the one that was released before it. The chronological order is The Nun (released 5th), Annabelle 2 (4th), Annabelle 1 (2nd), Conjuring 1 (1st), Annabelle 3 (7th), La Llorona (6th), Conjuring 2 (3rd), Conjuring 3 (8th).)

So, again, it's not a home run, and I wasn't surprised to see people dismissing it (some even said it was the worst of this entire franchise, which, come on. It's not even the worst one by Michael Chaves!), but due to my own sensibilities being catered to, I found it more engaging than I would have if they stuck with the Wetzels' house the entire time. The occasional bits of humor (Noble explaining why he can't shake Ed's hand floored me) and focus on more flesh and blood threats kept my interest and more or less made up for its at-times awkward editing and structure (even the score suggests some production discord, as it's largely comprised of temp music, featuring everything from End of Days (!) to... 1917 and Sicario?). Hopefully they aren't scared off and return to more familiar territory with Conjuring 4 if there is one; I'd prefer if they just took what worked here and went even further off the beaten path next time around. It's the Warren characters that keep us coming back, so there's no reason to stick them in the same sub-genre every time out. And since the real life people are a. con artists and b. dead there's no real reason to even stick to their real life cases, as they can make something up 100% and it won't really be much different than the Warrens' "facts" that inspired them in the first place.

What say you?


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