The Warrens deserve a rest. The paranormal investigators whose files The Conjuring franchise rifles through, Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), are constantly being thrown around, haunted, punctured, strangled and scared stiff in the line of their demonological duties. In The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the third film in the main series started by James Wan (who gives up the reins this time to director Michael Chaves), they’re afflicted by problems both familiarly spiritual and refreshingly mortal as they lean most heavily on the “investigator” part of “paranormal investigator.” It’s not a positive tweak to their résumés. In fact, the only thing keeping its loose look at the Arne Cheyenne Johnson trial from entirely going to hell in a handbag is the established, warm rapport of Wilson and Farmiga. With few scares and a marked decrease in this entry’s level of filmmaking, The Conjuring series is now a shadow of its old self.
That’s a shame considering the imaginative potential lurking in the Warrens’ long career and The Conjuring’s well-stocked museum of haunted souvenirs. But its handling of the real-life murder committed by Johnson (a charismatic but underutilized Ruairi O’Connor), whose lawyer argued that he was possessed at the time, lacks the patience and virtuosity that helped make the first two films’ traditional hauntings so delightfully freaky. It’s got too much on its mind, as Ed and Lorraine (and the film) abandon Johnson’s case/trial—fertile ground for some paranormal novelty—pretty much immediately in favor of a road tripping whodunnit. Who or what made Johnson stab his landlord a couple dozen times?
As they galivant all over God’s green Earth looking for clues that specifically have nothing to do with God, any dread is snuffed out like a non-believer in Amityville. Abandoning a haunted house’s sense of powerless claustrophobia for a wide-ranging procedural held together by coincidence saps the series’ strengths. Mysteries are solved by “Hey, I stumbled across this ancient text off-screen” or “Oh, I know a guy.” It’s corner-cutting screenwriting peppered with details that just don’t pay off. Issues of betrayal—of spouses, of ideals, of one’s own body—are toyed with and discarded: Ed suffers a major heart attack and both Warrens start hallucinating…and it never amounts to much at all, let alone any kind of emotional payoff between two characters who’ve been played by the same actors for nearly a decade. Even when we sporadically return to the supernaturally afflicted killer’s prison confines, Chaves’ boring and blandly designed scares fail to utilize the specificity of their infirmary or solitary confinement settings.
The horror gags are pretty resolutely lame and peak early (thanks to a nicely staged bathroom segment featuring a capable Julian Hilliard, who’s been making horror waves since The Haunting of Hill House), giving way to a deluge of silly jumpers, strobe-lit action and those classic camera pans—nothing over here; wonder what’s over there?—that telegraph rather than build anticipation for their reveals. A few FX-enhanced acts of contortion are more reflective of the screenwriting than anything else. Wan’s savvy planting of seeds in prop and set design (perhaps an easier job when confined to a haunted house) almost always paid off. Here, Chaves and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick come up with a few fun horror situations and mimic quite a few more (including that waterbed scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master), but their execution sorely misses Wan’s deliberate stage-setting and unfurling.
Unfortunately, that’s just Chaves going back to his The Curse of La Llorona (a bad movie that shouldn’t be confused with the excellent Guatemalan La Llorona), where he only managed a single effective scene—involving the rolling up of car windows—amidst the watered-down and mistimed homages. Chaves and cinematographer Michael Burgess manage a few flashy lighting transitions this time that serve as better setpieces than the actual scares, but for the most part The Devil Made Me Do It is hard to look at. Literally. Everything is underlit or lit in a way that makes no sense (what are those floodlights doing there?), and it’s all covered with an annoying orange tint.
In fact, even the third Conjuring’s biggest strength—its leads—seem to have lost their faith in the franchise. Farmiga and Wilson still have that old chemistry, with Wilson’s dopey do-gooder and Farmiga’s warm-but-spooky psychic still sporting a palpable and deep affection for one another, but their deliveries are stagier and their reactions less honest under Chaves’ direction. As nice as it is to see John Noble, playing a priest with a particular expertise in Satanic cults, his quiet performance is nearly drowned out.
The Devil Made Me Do It proves that, with The Conjuring franchise at least, the devil you know is far, far better than the one you don’t. Chaves doesn’t quite manage to close the Warren files, but his efforts in the universe are now two of the weakest. Ambitious as its larger story may be, moving Ed and Lorraine beyond the trappings of haunted homes, its ghoulish gambles rarely rise above mediocrity and its craftsmanship rarely shows the refinement of a twig-and-bone witch’s totem.
Director: Michael Chaves
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, James Wan
Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard
Release Date: June 4, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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