Director: Michael Chaves
Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, John Noble
The eighth film to emerge in this franchise since James Wan kicked it off in 2013, the laboriously titled The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It goes hard embracing the hoariest tropes that make popcorn horror movies easy pickings for criticism, and catnip for punters after dependable and absorbing escapism.
We’re still very much in the Honeymoon period of returning to cinemas. Regardless of the quality of the picture, there’s a heady sense of romance in the air. An institution has returned. Perhaps not coincidentally, its the held-over horror pictures that are lining up to take our money first. The carnival pieces. The ghost train rides. Cinema’s funfair.
The third Conjuring title is the first of these to be presented without Wan in the director’s chair. These duties are handed over to Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona), who feels gamely up to the challenge. We’re veritably thrown into the middle of the action from the movie’s opening salvo. It’s par for the course – tradition you might say – for these flicks to break us in with some establishing chills before recharging the batteries for the main event to come (think how the first opened by introducing us to Annabelle). The Devil Made Me Do It appears to be sticking to formula.
We’re in the rural town of Brookfield and deep into a classic case of child demon possession… or so it appears. Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are citing scripture and battling the phantom claw slashes of another ruthless nasty, this time holed up inside an eight year old named David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). Things head south, but disaster is seemingly averted when family friend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) steps in and takes on David’s burden, but not before Ed is wrought low by a heart attack.
Their eye off the ball thanks to Ed’s medical emergency, the Warrens don’t react fast enough to stop a new tragedy from unfolding, one that Chaves amps up with impressively muscular moves. A sequence at a country kennel is presented with something reminiscent of the fevered urgency of vintage Tobe Hooper. A quarter of an hour in and TDMMDI feels like a different beast. Meaner. More aggressive.
But this in itself appears to be the movie’s biggest trick.
As it progresses, TDMMDI gravitates back to the familiar. This goes for its scares as well as it’s tone and tempo. Granted, it ultimately trades demon possession for a kind of witch’s curse, but the results are – increasingly – the same. Chaves’ dark entities come and go, but their methods lack ingenuity. We’re comfortably in the realm of evil peek-a-boo and the kind of rickety body manipulation that’s been rolled out hundreds of times before, while Ed and Lorraine’s investigations feel procedural. Chaves gives the piece an incredibly professional polish – this looks like Hollywood horror at its glossiest – but the mechanics of the piece crave innovation.
The heart of these films remains the bond between Ed and Lorraine and that remains true here. With Ed’s abilities diminished, Lorraine really comes to the fore and Farmiga takes hold of the opportunity with both hands. She dominates the middle of the picture – a mild tangent, which finds the two of them assisting a cold case murder investigation – and she’s the fulcrum of the film’s atmospheric catacomb finale.
Briefly, on the subject of this end stretch, Chaves and Wan (still on hand breaking the story here) find themselves directly retreading moves from Wan’s own Insidious Chapter 2… with the very same actor. It’s glaring. So glaring that it’s hard to tell if its intentional or not.
The Conjuring is the most conservative horror franchise out there right now. With it’s old-timey reminiscences and unwavering religious devotion, its a vehicle for embracing and expounding the traditional. This comes across as cute in some ways, tiring in others. Hardly surprising but, from the viewpoint of TDMMDI, Satanists and witches can never be anything more than rote, cold and inhumane ciphers; puppets for the hellions ‘below’. Once rooted out, the baddie here is sadly underdeveloped; their choices and motives almost incidental. And, with such a deliberately styled androgynous form, there’s also the mildest whiff of transphobia about TDMMDI, but not enough to beat a drum about it.
Still, for its shortcomings, it fulfills its own mandate and then some. This is still a rollicking good ride if you give yourself over to it in the moment, and there’s no better place to experience something like this than a cinema or drive-thru. With the right audience, TDMMDI will pay off gangbusters. It’ll be a paper-thin experience that leaves nagging doubts as soon as you hit daylight again, but in the moment its an involving and trustworthy theme park ride that provides all the associated buzzes as promised. Even if nothing here seems powerful enough to warrant its own spin-off this time.