Patrick Wilson - Ed Warren
Vera Farmiga - Lorraine Warren
Sterling Jerins - Judy Warren
Ruairi O’Connor - Arne Cheyenne Johnson
Sarah Catherine Hook - Debbie Glatzel
Jillian Hilliard - David Glatzel
Steve Coulter - Father Gordon
John Noble - Father Kastner
Eugenie Bondurant - The Occultist
Ronnie Gene Blevins - Bruno Sauls
Genre - Horror/Mystery/Thriller/Supernatural/Possession
Running Time - 112 Minutes
Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga) encounter what would become one of the most sensational cases from their files. The fight for the soul of a young boy (Jillian Hilliard) takes them beyond anything they’d ever seen before, to mark the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect (Ruairi O’Connor) would claim demonic possession as a defense.
One of my most anticipated films of 2020 [before it was moved to 2021 due to the pandemic], THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO - which I will call THE CONJURING 3 from now on - was a film I had on my radar the moment it was announced. While I haven’t watched any of the spin-offs yet due to mixed responses from friends, I’ll always have love for the first two films in the main series. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea in terms of modern horror, but I dig their throwback haunted house narratives. Plus, the duo of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga classes up these movies due to their chemistry and genuine passion for these projects.
However, I knew THE CONJURING 3 wouldn’t compare to the first two films due to director James Wan not returning and just sticking to a producer and writer role. Instead, Wan handed the duties to Michael Chaves - the man who directed what many call the worst spin-off in the series, 2019’s THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA. I also heard things about the film focusing more as a detective and courtroom story, like something you’d see on Law & Order, and I became a bit concerned. I didn’t mind a new direction for the series [as it honestly could have used it], but it made me less excited for the film even though I still wanted to see it.
Unfortunately, THE CONJURING 3 proved my worries right. The direction isn’t as good. The narrative seems confused. And probably the worst thing about it - it’s freakin’ boring as hell. How did this happen??
The screenplay for this movie shouldn’t have been this poor, considering the story the film is based on was a media sensation during the early 1980s. The Trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, also known as “The Devil Made Me Do It” Case, was the first U.S. trial in which the defendant pleaded “not guilty” due to demonic possession. Apparently, Johnson ended up murdering his landlord months after being possessed by a Satanic force that had once possessed his girlfriend’s little brother - this after Johnson pleaded for the demon to spare the little boy and to take him. Realistically, a court can’t really prove that this even happened, which made the case such a juicy story for news outlets and tabloids. The real-life Warrens were even involved with this case, supposedly there to see the possession of the young boy and act as witnesses for Johnson. Lorraine Warren was even part of a book that was released in 1983 called The Devil in Connecticut, which created more buzz that The Warrens were hoaxes and just trying to scam people for fame and fortune.
Now if the actual film focused more on these aspects, it would have been an interesting movie. THE CONJURING 2 already had moments where The Warrens are called out for being fakes and con artists. THE CONJURING 3 could have expanded on that, showing how the people outside of their circle view them as The Warrens try to prove that they’re truly legit - even if they can’t get the court system to acknowledge the supernatural truth as physical evidence. Instead of portraying the couple as mythological superheroes [which this film does way too much of], it would be nice to make them vulnerable to some real world opinions and situations. Hell, seeing them testify in an actual courtroom could have been cool too, as they could have been put on trial for their supernatural adventures that most people probably believe is B.S. anyway.
Instead, THE CONJURING 3 would rather turn Lorraine and Ed Warren into the Benson and Stabler of paranormal investigations, focusing more on their detective skills rather than the actual Johnson case itself. While it’s respectable that James Wan and crew wanted to get away from the haunted house setting and go in a different direction, it just doesn’t work well here. The strength of the first two films is that The Warrens became personally connected to the victims being haunted. It not only fleshed out the victims, but it also gave depth to the couple through connecting their experiences to those they were helping. There was an organic bond between all the characters and it was through that the villains were always beaten.
We don’t get any of that here because Johnson and his core group are segregated from The Warrens for ninety-percent of the film because Lorraine and Ed are busy trying to find evidence to prove Johnson was possessed, while battling this evil entity who seems to be targeting them for getting into their business. I barely knew anything about the victims because they’re not given enough time to really develop, giving more of the film’s focus to the characters we already know. Arne Johnson seemed like a nice guy, but we barely get any of that because he’s quickly struggling with a possession. And it doesn’t help that his girlfriend and her little brother [who was the first one possessed] just feel like they’re there to prop Arne up, rather than being actual people we want to root for. I understand Arne’s girlfriend was a witness to her brother’s possession and believes Arne was suffering through the same ordeal. But couldn’t there have been a moment of doubt that maybe Arne had a moment of weakness and murdered his landlord without some Satanic force tricking him? It would have added some much needed depth to their relationship.
It doesn’t help that the investigation part isn’t all that interesting. While certain moments do work really well within the detective work, it felt like I was watching someone play a video game - but rather than doing the main mission to advance the story, they were more focused on doing side quests to fill the time. It became less about finding proof about the possession and more about helping people deal with their own cold cases in order to get back to their actual mission. By the time we started learning the truth about the villain, I stopped caring about what was going on. It also didn’t help that the villain is probably the weakest of the main series [maybe for even the spin-offs, I don’t know]. There’s no real character development and while they can do threatening things, they’re not all that threatening themselves. Or memorable. And supposedly there’s a twist as to who the identity of the villain is, but it’s pretty easy to figure out if you pay attention enough. It’s as if they wanted to stick to this narrative of The Warrens battling this malevolent figure like in the previous films, rather than focusing on the more interesting aspect of the story, which was Arne Johnson’s situation and his trial [which you barely get scenes of anyway].
I also have an issue with this storytelling when it comes to The Warrens. I get that they’re beloved and they’re the reason audiences watch these films to begin with. But ever since the first film, stories have come out about the couple that muddies up this perfect interpretation of Ed and Lorraine - at least for me. Regardless if you think they were con artists or not, I feel like these films have gotten to a point where the characters are being depicted as these perfect superheroes who can take out any demonic force and live happily ever after because they’re Christians. At times, THE CONJURING 3 feels like a Christian propaganda piece more than a horror film, with God giving Ed and Lorraine superpowers in order to battle evil. In fact, Lorraine Warren is flat out Jean Grey in this movie, having psychic visions and then acting them out. While these scenes visually are great, it’s implausible to take real life people and turn them into X-Men. It worked in the previous films because it was done in a subtle way. But THE CONJURING 3 takes it to a whole new level. And I found these scenes more laughable than impressive. I get the film is embracing the Satanic Panic of the time, but it doesn't totally work here.
That being said, I still enjoy the portrayal of The Warrens as a couple who care and love each other, no matter what. Ed takes a bit of a backseat in the film due to having a heart attack, but Lorraine’s love and support for him is really nice to see. And while Ed plays Robin to Lorraine’s Batman in this film, I always enjoy their scenes together even if the superhero dynamic that’s been added is a bit over the top. Whether or not these were this dynamic as a couple in real life is beside the point. I just enjoy The Warrens being the glue that keeps these stories together.
Also, some of the action scenes are pretty great. While director Michael Chaves never comes close to being as visually stylish and dynamic as James Wan, he does craft several scenes that are highlights within this series. I thought the opening ten minutes during David Glatzel’s possession were presented really well. Yes, it rips off THE EXORCIST way too much at times, but it honestly was the only moment in the film where the film actually tries to be scary. Watching a child contort himself and cause chaos is pretty thrilling, with pretty good CGI and atmospheric lighting making the scene stand out. I wish the rest of the film had kept this energy.
While there are other “scary” moments that are pretty standard with THE CONJURING series, with none of them really making much of a mark for me, there are a couple of more scenes that do work. The murder of Arne Johnson’s landlord is actually visualized pretty damn well, with Arne seeing his landlord as a demonic force. It also uses “Call Me” by Blondie, slowing it down like most modern horror films try to do to make an upbeat song sound creepy. While an overdone trope, it’s used effectively here as the slowdown matches the demonic state Arne is in. The other standout scene involves Lorraine using her powers to locate a missing girl for a police officer who may have a lead towards helping Arne’s case. She’s overwhelmed by the events of the girl’s disappearance that she ends up almost falling off a cliff due to a demonic hand grabbing and pulling her down, until Ed saves her. It’s a really well shot and well acted scene. It’s too bad the rest of the film is plodding because it could have used more energy like this.
As for Graves’ overall direction, it’s okay. While the film has some nice set pieces and the CGI is more than well handled, his pacing isn’t that great since I almost fell asleep watching this - especially in the second half of the film. The lighting was way too dark at times, which I guess was to make the film seem older, grittier and scarier? I thought it hurt a lot of the visual choices the cinematographer had created. And the film is never scary and can be way too dramatic for its own good. I feel like there was a tonal conflict going on somewhere because I was never sure if the film wanted to be a horror film or a procedural drama. I’ve heard this is an improvement for Graves in terms of it being better directed than THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA, so good for the guy for having better material to work with.
The acting is very good, as one would expect from these films. The heart of THE CONJURING films will always be Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren. I think the way the characters are written are becoming almost caricatures at this point. But Wilson and Farmiga still have amazing chemistry and seem to enjoy working off of each other, even though they both seemed kind of bored at times. Farmiga seems to be more of the focus point this time around as she gets a lot more to do than Wilson does. But they still complement each other well.
The rest of the actors are fine but don’t get a whole lot to do. Ruairi O’Connor is good as Arne, especially when he struggles with the demon possessing him. Sarah Catherine Hook tries to make a one-note character like Debbie Glatzel into something worthwhile, but she’s just your archetypical girlfriend. Jillian Hilliard gets the creepier moments as young David Glatzel, involving a possession and a waterbed. Nice seeing John Noble as a former priest, but he’s honestly wasted in his role. And while Eugenie Bondurant has a presence as the film’s villain, she doesn’t get a whole lot to do in order to shine. But she had a character without any meat on her bones. Good cast, but I wish a lot of their roles were written better.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT is unfortunately not worth the year wait, as it’s less creepy and more boring than its predecessors. Turning Ed and Lorraine Warren into the supernatural Benson and Stabler is an interesting idea that doesn’t work out all that well, especially when the couple are portrayed as superheroes that stretch beyond the suspension of disbelief. For a film about a famous court case dealing with the idea of possession as a defense to murder, there isn’t a whole lot of focus on the defendant and his trial, making the film feel disjointed as a narrative. It also doesn’t allow The Warrens to connect with the other characters on a personal level, losing a big factor on what made the previous two films great. And with a very weak villain who is not memorable at all, the story is lacking in almost every way.
That being said, some of the direction by THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA director Michael Chaves does work - in particular the opening exorcism scene, the scene where Arne Johnson murders his landlord and a scene involving The Warrens searching for a missing murder victim in the woods. And the acting, especially by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga maintaining their organic chemistry, is good. But overall, a pretty disappointing sequel that probably shows how tired this series has become despite an attempt to take it outside a haunted house setting to mixed results. Fans of this franchise will probably check this out regardless, but I’ll watch X-Files if I want to watch some supernatural investigative stories that won’t put me to sleep.
2 Howls Outta 4