There’s a moment early on in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It when heroes Ed and Lorraine Warren meet with a defense attorney and try to convince her to employ a novel murder defense of “not guilty by reason of demonic possession.”
The film then goes another hour before returning to this, but at the end, I realized that a movie about that trial, a defendant actually making that argument, lawyers haggling over it, and the judge laughing in their face probably would have been more enjoyable than the actual movie I had just watched.
The third official, not doll-based film in the Conjuring series, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It once again stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Warrens, a real-life ghost-hunting married couple who really did insinuate themselves into countless murder cases. The new movie, which lands in both theaters and on HBO Max June 4, is based on the actual case of Arne Johnson, a man who really was accused of a murder in 1981 and really did claim demonic possession at trial.
Some of the Conjuring movies, especially James Wan original in 2013, have been quite good, though I admit I have not seen most of the spinoffs that involve that cursed doll. This one is less good, as the creepiness and jump scares are overwhelmed by the fatal flaws that are endemic to this material.
The new film, set in 1981, begins with an extremely unsettling exorcism scene, that features a young boy seemingly possessed by a demon. Eventually, the demon is seemingly transferred to the body of the boy’s girlfriend’s brother (the bland Ruairi O’Connor), leading to huge complications, and an ugly inter-dimensional battle. Michael Chaves, who last directed the Conjuring-adjacent horror film The Curse of La Llorona, steps in as director, while Wan is listed as a producer.
There are some decent elements at play here, including likable performances from the two leads, a creepy turn from John Noble as an elderly priest. There’s a funny bit involving a waterbed, as our culture has been missing out a lot on waterbed humor for the last 35 or 40 years. There’s also a deeply unsettling scene set in a morgue – even before the undead naked guy shows up – although the film, unfortunately, leans heavily on set pieces set in the dark with intermittent lighting.
Enjoying these films require looking past a few things.
One, the Warrens, in real life, were almost certainly huge frauds, and these movies are presented as “true stories” when the events they depict are are tall tales at best and hoaxes at worst.
Two, these movies have a reactionary worldview that’s been compared to conservative Christian propaganda, much more so than most of what’s trotted out by supposedly left-wing Hollywood. The Conjuring films, which are produced and released entirely within the Hollywood studio system — and this one will be streaming on HBO Max —take interdimensional battles between God and Satan extremely seriously and literally. Culturally, oddly enough, the Conjuring movies are to the right of most movies in the full-on faith-based genre.
The new film, perhaps most egregiously, appears to take the Satanic Panic insanity of the early 1980s — a huge hoax that ruined a large number of innocent lives — at face value. A few recent horror movies, one of them even literally titled Satanic Panic, have had some fun with the cultural memories of that era and taken them in some worthwhile directions. But this one takes it deadly seriously- and, with the rise of QAnon acting as a revival of much of the same sentiments, it seems likely to earn some bad fans.
The Conjuring movies are formulaic enough and have been successful enough, that we’re likely not done getting new ones on a semi-yearly basis. But The Devil Made Me Do It represents the franchise at its worst- a situation in which the filmmaking can’t overcome the rank dishonesty.
And besides- I’d really love to see someone give that “Satanic murder trial” idea a whirl.