An exorcism gone askew, creepy figures lingering in the corners of dark rooms, the frantic shouting of the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of a rain and windstorm: it must be time for another “Conjuring” movie.
By now we know the rhythms of this dependably bland horror franchise, yet “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do it” feels a little more rickety than its predecessors, its “based on a true story!” shtick more silly than ever. Its funhouse scares are disposable, and it plays more like a shoddy episode of a weekly TV series than a standalone entry in a massively successful movie franchise. There will for sure be more “Conjurings” – horror series are tough to kill off, just ask Freddy or Jason – but it’s getting time to move on.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is the third movie in the “Conjuring” series and the eighth entry in the larger “Conjuring” universe, which launched in 2013 and also includes three “Annabelle” movies, 2018’s “The Nun” and 2019’s “The Curse of La Llorona.”
This assembly line of films all features slight variations on the same themes and is built on a foundation of safe date night horror: a bump in the night, some light demonic possession but nothing too disturbing or with scares that linger past the closing credits. Faith wins out in the end.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back as Ed and Lorraine Warren, East Coast paranormal investigators in the ‘70s and ‘80s, these films supposedly torn from the real life couple’s case files. Wilson and Farmiga are a solid team, believable and trustworthy, even as the world around them spins out of control. They elevate the proceedings, giving the series a credibility it otherwise wouldn’t, well, possess.
“The Devil Made Me Do It” opens in 1981 as 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) is getting the devil exorcised from his body, an average night out for the Warrens. But this one is a little bit different: when Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), David’s sister’s boyfriend, asks the spirit that’s inhibiting David’s body to jump into his body instead, the transfer is made, and Ed witnesses it happen. So a few weeks later when Arne ruthlessly stabs his landlord 22 times, Ed knows Arne may not be to blame, and that he can mount the defense that makes up the film’s title.
So there was an Arne Johnson and a trial that came to be known as the “Devil Made Me Do It” case, but director Michael Chaves (“The Curse of la Llorona”) –taking over for “Conjuring” 1 and 2 director James Wan – fills his sepia-toned frames with demon-types and spooky presences that would be tough to admit as evidence. Without that “true story” tagline, “The Conjuring” movies are just another ghost story, and here the scares seem to be more inspired than other horror movies than any true-life events. (Chaves does pay homage to “The Exorcist” with a near-recreation of the film’s iconic poster.) If you believe what’s happening here, you probably also believe there’s a monster under your bed.
Which, hey, that’s what a good horror movie is supposed to do, make you question each and every creek of a wooden floor or unexplained noise in the dark. But aside from the committed performances of Wilson and Farmiga, “The Devil Made Me Do It” doesn’t cut it.
But you can see where the series might be headed, with the introduction of Mitchell Hoog and Megan Ashley Brown as the young Warrens. Is “The Conjuring” headed into prequel territory? Scarier things have happened, and it’s time for this series to conjure up something new.