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Change of possession - ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’

June 7, 2021
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When a film trots out the phrase “based on a true story,” that can mean a lot of things, from a meticulous recreation of well-documented events (albeit with some dramatic license) to a largely constructed fiction that borrows a couple of ostensibly true elements from a preexisting story. But if the “true story” in question already has a complicated relationship with veracity?

Well … then you get “The Conjuring” films.

The latest installment in the increasingly sprawling horror franchise is “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” It’s the third “Conjuring” film proper, though there have been a number of spin-off/tangentially connected movies as well. Directed by Michael Chaves from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, it’s a continuation of the supernatural adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

As with any franchise, the law of diminishing returns is in play; this one is no exception. While it does feature some solid performances and a couple of decent jump scares, the truth is that this new offering doesn’t reach the level of the previous two films in the series.

In 1981, Ed (Patrick Wilson, “Midway”) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) Warren are participating in an exorcism, attempting to rid eight-year-old David Glatzel (Jullian Hilliard, TV’s “WandaVision”) of the demonic presence possessing him. His parents are there by his side, as are his sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook in her feature debut) and Debbie’s boyfriend Arne (Ruairi O’Connor, “The Postcard Killings”).

But when things go awry and David starts hurting people, chaos ensues. And in the midst of that chaos – which includes Ed suffering a serious heart attack and David’s dad getting stabbed in the leg – Arne takes it upon himself to try and rectify the situation. He invites the demon inside David to take him instead.

You can probably guess how well that plays out.

It isn’t long before Arne’s own situation begins to spiral. And when the demon inside him drives him to commit a horrific act of violence, he finds himself imprisoned, in shackles and awaiting a trial for a crime that, depending on your perspective, he didn’t actually commit. The Warrens begin investigating the situation in an effort to free Arne and prove, for the first time in a courtroom, that it was in fact the devil that made him do it.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” bills itself as based on a true story. That phrasing is even trickier than usual here because of the reputation of the real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren as deluded dupes at best and grifting charlatans at worst. Is this film based on the “true story” as put forth by the Warrens? Sure. Is that story ACTUALLY true? All signs point to no.

That said, the veracity of the source material has little to do with the movie itself, at least in this case. The relative truth or untruth of the account doesn’t matter – it’s a movie, after all. And a horror movie at that. If it’s effective as a film, the rest is immaterial.

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

There’s something absent from “TDMMDI,” the spark that made the first film (and to a slightly lesser extent, the second) work. As portrayed on-screen, the work done by the Warrens is spooky and terrifying and dangerous, charged with a sense of precariousness. It’s a balancing act, with the Warrens standing at the fulcrum preventing others from being trapped forever in darkness. But that sense of balance never fully comes through here.

This film is absolutely lousy with standard-issue tropes. The exorcism and possession scenes are grisly, but grisly in the same way they’ve been shown on film for decades now. The various subplots all feel rote, as if they’ve simply been copied from other (and better) films. There’s just nothing much about this film that feels new. Even if you leave aside the fact that this is the third film in the series and the eighth (!) in the franchise overall, there has to be room for something new. Instead, it’s all retread and rehash, a churn of greatest hits that is less than the sum of its parts.

None of the blame for this should be placed on the cast, though. Frankly, the only reason this film works as much as it does is because of the work being put in by Patrick Wilson and especially Vera Farmiga. Both are talented actors who have never quite received the credit those talents warrant, though their presence in this franchise likely helps their bottom lines even if it doesn’t burnish their reputations. Still, they bring a screwball-adjacent energy to the Warrens, which works well even in the horror context; their chemistry is enough to keep the film afloat as it thrashes through its convoluted-yet-familiar narrative beats.

The supporting cast does fine work as well, if not quite to the level of Wilson and Farmiga. Playing the possessed in these sorts of films is a weird and complicated gig, but both Hilliard and O’Connor handle it well. O’Connor’s general gormlessness serves as a nice counterpoint to when things get nuts. If her work here in her feature debut is any indication, Hook might be one to watch – it’s a thankless role, but she handles herself well. John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant and Ronnie Gene Blevins also do solid work in roles that I won’t delve into; spoiler, you know?

No, this film falls short due to the generally uninspired direction of Chaves and the murky messiness of Johnson-McGoldrick’s script. It’s expected that a film series will gradually dip in quality, but this is far more of a drop-off than you might anticipate. It more or less maintains the standard “The Conjuring” ethos, but fails to find any sort of real resonance.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is a mediocre extension of a cinematic universe that may have reached its sell-by date. There are flashes, but for the most part, it simply fails to engage. Big picture, one could argue it’s OK, but hey – the devil is in the details.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 07 June 2021 07:04

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