Two of my very favorite horror movies of the last decade were James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013) and “The Conjuring 2” (2016). Based on the supposed real-life case files of paranormal investigators and Vatican certified demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the Conjuring films were breaths of fresh air in a genre that had become pretty bland and stale. Both films were big box office successes which Warner Brothers used to launch several spin-off movies. None of them came close to the quality of Wan’s centerpieces, but they made money and ensured franchise fans of future movies.
The third film sees Wan producing and conceiving the story but stepping away from the director’s chair. It also sees the series dropping the number in its title and going with a case-referencing subtitle. Even more, unlike its predecessors, this isn’t a haunted house movie. Instead it’s based on the 1981 trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson which became known as the “Devil Made Me Do It” case (hence the film’s funny sounding yet appropriate title). This one very much plays like a supernatural mystery; one that isn’t confined to a single location. Its differences from the previous two movies are obvious, but that’s part of what makes it such a nice addition to the series.
Though helmed by a new director (Michael Chaves), “The Devil Made Me Do It” does see the return of its most essential ingredients. The reliable Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles as Loraine and Ed, possessing that same stellar chemistry that has made the Warrens the heart of the “Conjuring” films. Their loving, devoted relationship has always played a crucial part to these stories, but never more than in the third film. In fact you could call this a thoughtful love story, albeit one wrapped from top to bottom in eerie supernatural terror.
The film opens with a chilling prologue that would feel right at home in first films. The Warrens have been summoned to Brookfield, Connecticut where they’re documenting the exorcism of 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). In an obvious but satisfying toast to “The Exorcist”, the priest (Steve Coulter) arrives at the family home, standing in the soft glow of a street lamp with his bag by his side. Inside a malevolent demon fully takes hold of young David and a spiritual battle ensues. During the encounter Ed is attacked by the sinister spirit and suffers a heart attack. Then, unbeknownst by everyone other than the now unconscious Ed, the demon jumps from David to Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the amiable boyfriend of David’s older sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook).
By the time Ed wakes up in the hospital it’s too late to stop the demon from resurfacing in Arne. One gruesome murder later and Arne is in court pleading guilty by reason of demonic possession. Loraine and a recovering Ed get back on the case, setting out to prove Arne was possessed by uncovering the evil at the heart of it all. Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick pulls the Warrens out of the confines of a single-setting and sends them on a paranormal whodunnit that sees them tracking down a hermit ex-priest with knowledge of the occult, helping police with a cold case in a nearby town, and revisiting the home where the demon first possessed young David. And of course there is plenty of demonic pushback along the way.
By venturing outside of the haunted house box the third movie loses some of the nail-biting tension that kept fans perpetually on the edges of their seats. The first two films did a masterful job immersing their audiences in the suffocating terror of their settings – confining them within the walls of a creepy house with a devilish entity. There are tastes of that throughout part three, but this one leans more into a sustained level of dread. It’s not always cranked up to 10 nor does it need to be. But there is an ominous cloud that hangs over practically every scene. There are parts of the story that I wish were given more attention (such as the courtroom stuff), but the filmmakers know people aren’t coming to a “Conjuring” movie to see witness testimonies and cross-examinations.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” finds itself in an tough spot. It makes an effort to actually do something different within the series rather than follow the blueprint of the two earlier movies. It seeks to show that the “Conjuring” films don’t have to be the same thing over and over again. Some people will appreciate that ambition while others wishing for ‘more of the same’ could get lost in comparing it to its predecessors. That would be a shame because this is a solid entry that may lack some of the chills but yet maintains the spirit of the two earlier installments. And it does so by avoiding the copy-and-paste approach where the names have changed but not much else has. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.