“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” opens with what is arguably the most chilling sequence of the entire series so far. It’s 1981, and paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are at the home of David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), an eight-year-old boy who is possibly possessed. As the Warrens try to get a priest to perform an exorcism immediately, David behaves increasingly violently, contorting his body into unhuman positions and foaming at the mouth as the table he is laying on shakes uncontrollably and objects fly across the room. It isn’t unlike something out of “The Exorcist,” and it only ends when a young man named Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), who is dating David’s older sister, invites the demon inside David to take possession of him instead, that the horrifying event halts.
This event, and the events that follow in the rest of the film, is based on a true story. Sometime after David’s exorcism, Arne brutally murders his landlord. With the help of the Warrens, Arne and his attorney seek to prove that Arne is not guilty based on claims of demonic possession, the first case of its kind in America. In fact, the title of this movie is taken from the nickname bestowed upon the trial.
It goes without saying that after Arne is arrested and the Warrens begin investigating his possession, the story deviates farther from reality. “The Devil Made Me Do It” is the third film in the main “Conjuring” series (the eighth movie in the “Conjuring” universe if you include all the spinoffs they inspired), and it’s a bit of a departure from its predecessors, which were primarily haunted house movies. This film more takes the shape of a detective story, becoming increasingly convoluted as the Warrens learn that someone placed a curse on David and subsequently Arne, and search for clues as to who that someone is and where they are. The investigation takes Ed and Lorraine to different locations, even briefly abandoning Arne’s case to resolve another, possibly connected case (although what they ultimately learned from this endeavor I’m not entirely sure).
This is the first “Conjuring” movie not directed by series creator James Wan, who did still co-create the story and serve as a producer. Michael Chaves, who helmed the spinoff “The Curse of La Llorona,” takes over for this film, but he fails to create the foreboding atmosphere that was present for much of the previous films, and that is necessary for us to become fully invested in this one. Perhaps the most effective scene outside of the opening sequence is the one right before Arne kills his drunk, obnoxious landlord (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins). With music blaring, dogs in the kennel barking, and the room spinning as Arne’s consciousness dips in and out of reality, it’s an uncomfortably disorienting sequence. But even the outcome of that scene, and many other scenes in the film, feels inevitable. There are no surprises. There are no jump scares (well I guess technically there are, but they aren’t effective). There is no tension. And the dark versus light narrative reeks of clichés.
“The Devil Made Me Do It” may fail as a horror movie, but it’s actually pretty successful as a love story. Ed and Lorraine’s relationship and their obvious love and respect for each other has been a central part of every “Conjuring” film, but it is even more prominent in this one. At the start of the film, Ed suffers a massive heart attack that makes it physically more difficult for him to participate in the investigation, prompting him to lean even more on Lorraine. Take, for instance, a scene in which the couple need to look under the Glatzel home; Ed tells Lorraine that she’ll ruin her dress crawling under there, to which she shoots him a bemused look before telling him to hold her purse. But Lorraine, who possesses clairvoyant abilities, also needs to rely on Ed to pull her back to reality every time her mind takes her to another time and place. They are constantly there for each other, and when Lorraine sits by Ed’s bedside early in the film, she reminisces about how they first met at the movie theater, and how she cannot bear to leave him. Sure, it’s about as hokey as the film’s occult occurrences, but these moments between the couple come from a more genuine place. We can debate all day the validity of the real life Warrens’ work all day long, and the way these films put them up on a pedestal can be tiring, but Wilson and Farmiga continue to deliver reliably committed performances that sell both their characters’ beliefs in what they are investigating, and their belief in each other.
And ultimately, it is love that saves the day in this movie. It’s what brings Ed and Lorraine back to each other and enables them to defeat the evil. Running parallel to the story of this long-married couple is that of young lovers Arne and Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), and it’s Debbie’s steadfast love for Arne regardless of the circumstances that helps bring him back to himself. I watched “The Devil Made Me Do It” in the theater with a fairly rowdy Friday night crowd, and while they never shrieked at any of the attempted horror hijinks (and in fact frequently laughed at them), there is a moment between Ed and Lorraine in toward the end that made the audience collective “aww.” That more than anything is evidence of where these films find their strength.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until July 4. Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated R.