Before becoming self-invoked pillars of demonology and clairvoyance, the Warrens are—first and foremost—hustlers. You don’t need someone to nerd-splain this. The pair’s spree of often-contested but nevertheless intriguing claims of possession and poltergeists is quite storied, with many of their subjects calling them for who they are: grifters. That, in effect, makes New Line Cinema’s whole stint of retelling supposedly truth-based supernatural encounters ironic, but more importantly, more interesting to think about.
Because think about it: how in the hell have they crafted such a Disney-fied DILF out of someone as shady as Ed Warren? Patrick Wilson’s cut features and hearty serenades certainly help, but only when they work in tandem with Vera Farmiga’s gentler take on Lorraine Warren, a woman who, by contrast, presents a steelier exterior in real life. This franchise-ready version of the Warrens couldn’t have been farther from the truth that marketing the films to be “based on a true story” can be considered as an exercise in camp.
That near-parodical feel is unmistakable in Michael Chavez’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. The lack of James Wan shows early: After an admittedly impressive cold open, the film derails into a chatty, exposition-filled hour of supernatural Nancy Drew-ing, without nary the deftness we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Wan’s two previous Conjuring films. The promos give the impression that the film will cover the court proceedings of the case—in which a young man claimed to have been possessed and murdered his landlord—in the vein of, say, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (an objectively better film), but I guess we’re all aware of how the case pans out.
At the film’s center (even if their known involvement in the case IRL is, at best, meager) are Ed and Lorraine Warren. After a seemingly triumphant bout against a demon afflicting a young child named Dylan (The Haunting of Bly Manor’s Julian Hillard), the Warrens find themselves facing an altogether different enemy, one that has seemingly taken over a man named Arne Johnson (Ruari O’Connor), who spontaneously stabs an innocent man more than twenty times. Pretty standard stuff in the way of Conjuring films, if you ask me. But it grows even more derivative as the film goes on, turning sharply from courtroom procedural to generic occult mystery, always serving a side of ready-made red herrings next to an ultimately uninteresting mystery and too ambiguous of a villain.
“We think that David was cursed,” Lorraine explains, yielding puzzled looks. Witchcraft is a fine addition, but maybe pair it with a baddie that will have us shake in our boots in the same way that Valak, Mr. Wilkins, or Annabelle all individually have. Gone are the horror setpieces that made the franchise stick, like the original’s eerie hide-and-seek sequence and The Conjuring 2’s blue room with upside-down crucifixes.
It isn’t like Chavez does this just for the heck of it. The Devil Made Me Do It seems hellbent on giving the franchise a grittier coat, an admirable effort but one that doesn’t pair with a screenplay that plays with many of the franchise’s indulgences. The best bits of the film are when it takes itself less seriously, like when Ed enlightens a skeptic lawyer on the world of demonic possessions and exorcisms. That jump cut can be written off as a silly quirk, but against the aggressively average storytelling, it sticks out as an inspired moment.
Everything else is underwhelming. The title, in the end, is clickbait. Never does it pause to do anything with its ostensible conceit, much less explore it in-depth. That, ultimately, is what’s lost in The Conjuring 3. The frights have little (if any) weight, unlike the film’s predecessors. Though it’s clear that there’s little follow-through on the “based on true events” promise, at very least they touch on something meaningful, from American suburbia to London’s un-finest hour in the ’70s.