The third installment in the convoluted Conjuring timeline reminds you why you held out this long

By: Steve Pulaski

Don’t look now, but the original Conjuring turns eight years old this year. It’s also been five years since the first direct sequel to the film saw a release. No one could blame you for not noticing. We’ve been inundated with one spinoff after another leeching off a film that reminded masses that maybe mainstream horror wasn’t as moribund as we thought. One too many diversions — be it the Annabelle series or The Nun — almost made me forget how rock-solid The Conjuring films have been. Give me this trilogy and y’all can keep the rest.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It finally abandons the haunted house concept in favor of one complete with a legal brouhaha, a transitory demon inhabiting a likable family, and romance. If that all sounds lofty, and a little silly, it kind of is, to be fair. But even without the sure-handed James Wan behind the camera, this sequel reminds us of the weight of these supernatural occurrences and the toll they take on those affected.

Director Michael Chaves (who helmed arguably the worst Conjuring spinoff, The Curse of La Llorona) starts things off with a prologue set in 1981. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) perform an exorcism of a young boy named David Glatzel (Jullian Hilliard), successfully ridding the poor boy of the demon inside of him, but instead inadvertently transferring it to Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). Arne is a fine young man, who has shacked up with David’s sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook). He finds his life completely out of control as he succumbs to vivid hallucinations. When Arne commits a horrific murder at a dog kennel, the Warrens are called yet again to investigate the case.

The famous “Devil made me do it” case marked the first time in the United States where demonic possession was used as a defense in court. The Wikipedia article on it is an involving read alone. As the Warrens seek to convince Arne’s legal team that possession was the reason for Arne committing murder, Patrick’s health-scare puts the couple’s 30-year-long relationship in perspective. A great deal of The Devil Made Me Do It revolves around their legacy, as this would prove to be a defining moment for them as supernatural investigators. The paranormal power couple are given great humanization through David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s screenplay and Wilson and Farmiga’s respectful, and often touching, portrayal. They’ve been the anchors of this franchise since the beginning, helping sell us on the lovey-dovey undertones that sometimes become overtones.

We also get ample time with Arne and Debbie, whose lives will forever be changed by something ostensibly unexplainable. There’s a moment Arne and David share late in the film where the young David helps contextualize Arne’s feelings of powerlessness over his thoughts and his actions. David knows exactly what Arne means when he says he isn’t thinking the thoughts he has nor does he feel like he is in control of his life. When Arne becomes so disoriented he commits murder, we see the world through his eyes in a sequence that’s a total explosion of terror. Chaves directs these moments with the kind of clarity Wan exercised in the first two Conjuring films, and Johnson-McGoldrick’s screenplay restores the gravity of the situation through little moments as mentioned.

But The Devil Made Me Do It bears the occasional messiness that has plagued this universe since that creepy doll got her own series. It’s almost episodic as the Warrens conduct their investigation, contacting police, venturing out into a forest, and crawling around old cellars in search of a clue. The core of the story is further muddled when Stregherian witchcraft is introduced followed by the presence of an Occultist, no less effectively played by Eugenie Bondurant. The Exorcist callbacks are a little hokey too, with the most egregious one being a shot of a suitcase-wielding priest standing underneath a streetlamp.

It’s unlikely this Conjuring will be the last, although it should be given it reasserts the human element behind these hauntings that too frequently gets lost in a mess of shapeshifting demons and ominous noises. It does this legendary yet complicated case justice while illustrating the dynamic that made Ed and Lorraine Warren the successful investigators they were. Disjointedness aside, The Devil Made Me Do It further confirms that the films in this series with Conjuring in the title are the only ones worth your time.

NOTE: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max for a limited time.

Grade: B-

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