Back in 2013, director James Wan delivered arguably one of the most terrifying haunting films ever made in The Conjuring. In 2016, he did it again with The Conjuring 2, a film I would argue is his masterpiece, a confident work reaching heights of terror and emotion that, while still fun, none of the Conjure-verse movies have ever managed to match…
…So it’s no surprise that with The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the first Conjuring film without Wan behind the camera, Wan’s direction is sorely missing.
Directed by Michael Chaves (The Curse of la Llorona) and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2), The Devil Made Me Do It once again follows Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, having just exorcised a demon from young boy David (Julian Hilliard). Before Ed can warn the others that the demon has passed into a young man named Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), Ed suffers a heart attack that takes him and Lorraine to the hospital. Soon after, Arne commits a murder while possessed, and it is now up to Ed and Lorraine to prove to the court not just the existence of demons, but that Arne is not responsible for the murder.
Sounds like a pretty interesting courtroom drama with a horror spin, no? Well, for better or worse, that’s not what The Devil Made Me Do It is. At all.
Marketing for the film may have led some audiences to believe that The Devil Made Me Do It would play out more like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, another demonic possession film debating the existence of demons in court, but The Devil Made Me Do It instead turns into more of a reflection on the Satanic panic era—in this case, justifying it—inserting a classic “psychic investigator tracking a killer” premise, with Ed and Lorraine discovering that David and his family were in fact cursed, and it’s up to them to track down the “master Satanist”—their term, not mine—before it’s too late.
Right off the bat, this Conjuring film feels very different than the previous two. Rather than open on a separate case such as Annabelle or The Amityville house, The Devil Made Me Do It tosses us right into David’s exorcism. The scene is frightening, intense, and probably the most effective moment in terms of scares, with the film blowing its ectoplasmic load before we’ve hardly gotten going. There’s nothing wrong with throwing the audience into the ghostly fire right away, but it does render the horror that comes after a little less frightening, because there is no build up for these characters. We don’t get to know who they were before demons ravaged their lives as we have in previous films, so there is less impact by starting at the height of David’s possession, and then jumping around timelines to the past, present and future as the mystery unfolds. O’Connor is convincing as Arne, displaying a great amount of psychological torment that makes us feel for his character, but he and his family are already so clued in, that their terror is nothing like watching the desperate families of the first two films as they seek understanding through torment.
That’s probably because The Devil Made Me Do It is not Arne or his girlfriend, Debbie’s (Sarah Catherine Hook), story. It’s Ed and Lorraine’s. The demon hunting couple have always been the heart of these movies and at the center of everything, but in the first two films, their story was still secondary to the possession itself. In this case though, it’s all about Ed and Lorraine, with Arne’s possession serving as fodder for scares whenever the investigation thread is losing steam…which is often. Luckily, Wilson and Farmiga are just as great as ever, and the chemistry between their characters manages to carry the film and keep it from sinking into the black muck of the head-scratching choices which the script makes. Though this is the weakest story between the two, there is a sweet sadness in the fact that Ed can’t quite be the protector of Lorraine that he’s always strived to be, subdued by a recent heart surgery, which leaves him struggling to keep her safe when the terror strikes. Not that Lorraine actually needs his protection, though.
As for that terror, this is where the lack of Wan’s presence is felt the most. Chaves throws some effective scares our way, but is this film going to have you screaming so much your throat hurts by the end, like the previous two? Probably not. The Devil Made Me Do It is a step above some of the Conjure-verse films, and one giant step below the first two Conjuring movies when it comes to the dread and memorable screams. Each Conjuring film left audiences with some pretty iconic moments, whether it’s the clapping in the basement or that damn Nun painting, but there’s neither anything of the sort here, nor is there a secondary demon/ghost to keep things interesting. No Annabelle. No Crooked Man. Not even any Valak. Instead, Ed and Lorraine are left “fighting” a Satanist, a villain that fails to make much of an impression.
The Devil Made Me Do It is faced with that difficult task of following two masterful movies from a modern master of the genre, and I give Chaves all of the credit in the world for his bravery in taking this third film on, but The Devil Made Me Do It is quite simply a downgrade on every level, from the camerawork, to the editing, and even series composer Joseph Bishara’s score feels pulled back, less powerful. What set Wan’s Conjuring films apart was that, with those first two movies, Wan was creating his own vision of ghosts, his own iconic scares. The Devil Made Me Do It, on the other hand, feels like an exceptionally well-made Conjuring fan film, with Chaves acting as more of a James Wan-light, while inserting various other homages such as imagery pulled from The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and The Shining, to name a few, without establishing much in the way of originality in turn. Every director does this, but when the homages become the defining factor, that’s a problem. The Devil Made Me Do It consistently pulls from a bag of old tricks instead of making up any of its own.
I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. The Devil Made Me Do It is a fine movie, with solid atmosphere, great performances, and some good scares. If you enjoy the Conjure-verse films, you should have a good time with this latest sequel. But it struggles to live up to the first two films in every way, and the difference is palpable. This is not the scare-a-minute, pulse-pounding, moving haunting dramas that we’ve seen before. Instead it’s an average haunting film with a below-average mystery that begs the question…how much battery is left in the proton pack with the Conjure-verse movies and Ed and Lorraine’s journey?
Time will tell.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is now in theaters and on HBO Max from Warner Bros.
By Matt Konopka