After five years, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” — the third installment in the flagship storyline, which now includes multiple spinoff franchises — returns to the “based on a true case” framework that launched this horror universe.
With neither flying furniture nor a residential incantation, evil takes on a more tangible form this time. It’s also the first film in the trilogy, featuring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, not directed by series mastermind James Wan. At the helm this time is Michael Chaves, who previously directed the deservedly maligned “The Curse of La Llorona,” another installment of the “Conjuring” saga. Chaves gets a far superior showcase for his filmmaking abilities in the genre, from the screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“The Conjuring 2”) to Wilson and Farmiga’s lived-in charm and gravitas as their religiously passionate characters.
Offering several nods to “The Exorcist,” “The Devil Made Me Do It” opens with a disturbing sequence, set in 1981, that stands as the scariest part of the supernatural saga to date. That’s not to say that the nearly two hours that ensue are devoid of tension and well-paced jump scares, but the sheer chaos and malevolence on display right out of the gate are unmatched elsewhere.
That violent showdown between the Warrens and a demonic power introduces young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard, “WandaVision”), a victim of possession, and Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor, “The Spanish Princess”), who is dating David’s sister. Desperate to save the child, Arne invites the inhuman spirit to take over his body instead. A few days later, under its sinister influence, the hard-working young man murders his landlord and must convince a jury that, in fact, the devil made him do it.
What’s most interesting about this new spiritual battle is that the Warrens are confronted with a human villain with similar aptitudes as theirs (but harnessed for the occult) as opposed to free-flowing energies from hell. Farmiga devours the role once again with a mix of fragility and determination. Her concern for Wilson’s Ed, amplified when a totem appears in their home, contrasts with the toll that we know each assignment takes on Lorraine. There’s no reinvention to the characters, but a solid reprisal.
Additionally, the duo face the skeptical world at large to provide irrefutable proof needed to save Arne from a death sentence; even if this is the motivation for the Warrens to investigate the events, the plot never focuses on the courtroom. The scares in dark spaces and Lorraine’s tenebrous visions continue to take precedence.
The visual grammar and specific world-building that Wan devised for the two earlier films — the text over a freeze frame to set up the chapter, for instance, or a visit to the room where the Warrens keep all their haunted trinkets — is fully respected. Chaves seems not to deviate far from what was already in place, and that’s a smart move. The prolonged long takes that toy with our expectations and lead up to the big frights remain effectively calibrated.
The franchise is at its scariest when it doesn’t rely heavily on the CGI creatures and instead on the inherent eeriness of the darkness and what it hides. In “The Conjuring 2,” the longer and closer we stare at the computerized Crooked Man and The Nun, the less terrifying they become. Showing, rather than suggesting, has been a problem over the last decade or so in many big-studio horror movies.
In “The Devil Made Me Do It,” thankfully, the most shocking scenes demonstrate the grotesque effects of the curse at play on the human body. Arne’s body contorting in the air is far more nightmare-inducing than a pristine digital monster.
Neither this film nor “The Conjuring 2” manage to surpass the original in surprise value, but each new release reminds us that the distinctive success of “The Conjuring” universe as a whole derives from some key machinations built into its very concept. All of these movies are period pieces, which protects the narratives from the scrutiny of modern technology. None are gratuitous in their gruesomeness but instead anchor their stakes on a strong emotional bond, like that between a mother and her children. And they uphold the notion that if there’s a God, then there must be an equal and opposite force for evil. That last part is never in question. These are not the types of stories that bargain in ambiguity.
In that sense, they are religiously dogmatic movies that align with this country’s WASP values (despite pushing Catholicism) and white America’s nostalgia for decades past. Wan and company played into that idea of an idyllic existence that once was with needle drops to music from the era (Elvis Presley’s is a recurrent favorite) and by upholding traditional marriage not only via the protagonist but also for several supporting characters.
More than true tales about satanic apparitions, the “Conjuring” films are a romance between a man and a woman who happen to be demon hunters. Their fervent love for each other and their steadfastness in remaining together is what always saves them, and this latest ordeal is no exception.
Underneath the creepy encounters, these movies are incredibly wholesome in a way that suits conservative ideologies. That likely helps them triumph at the box office, since they reaffirm a belief in a Christian God while at the same time appealing to the secular crowd looking to be spooked. The politics behind these hits and their audiences deserve further serious analysis.
In drafting multiple peripheral properties focused on some terrifying entities (including three “Annabel” movies), the “Conjuring” brain trust has ensured that even when the main arc involving the Warrens runs out, the frights will continue. However, without what that central on-screen relationship adds both thematically and in terms of acting quality, those subsequent efforts might feel like afterthoughts disguised as cash cows.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” opens in US theaters and on HBO Max June 4.