1.5 out of 5 stars

It isn’t a stretch to say The Conjuring series—and the extended universe that’s come of its many spin-offs— has become something of a phenomenon. The tradition of explosively successful horror films evolving into a series is nothing new,  but it’s not often they feature various malevolent entities that each get their own spin-off films, à la the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a result, the Annabelle seriesThe Nun (2018), and The Curse of La Llorona (2019) are all examples of this plan in action, and commercially, it seems to be paying off in spades. However, if there’s one key thing to note here, it’s that none of them live up to the entertainment value and relatively firm quality of the tentpole Conjuring films themselves.

That’s most likely because of the director who spearheaded the Conjuring saga’s first two primary instalments: sui generis blockbuster whiz James Wan, who co-created Saw and Insidious. Centered around the real-life investigations of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring series has been busily adapting their specific cases and hauntings, most of which concern families suffering from supernatural torment in their own homes. While not without their fair share of flaws, the first two Conjuring movies were consistent in being enjoyable, creative, satisfying, and at points genuinely chilling, with a robust sense of atmosphere clearly inspired by noteworthy horrors from the past.

However, two things of note have changed with the release of the tentpole series’s third installment, The Devil Made Me Do It. Firstly, Wan’s been switched out for The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves—-a concerning choice, given that spin-off was disastrously insensitive in its trite depictions of Mexican urban legend and folklore. Secondly, the scope of the series seems to have expanded to wild proportions, perhaps to a fault. Breaking free of the conventional haunted house formula of the first two Conjuring‘s, The Devil Made Me Do It takes its narrative several steps further, adapting a Warren case that went straight to court : the infamous 1981 murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, also known as the eponymous “Devil Made Me Do It” case.

The end result of this worrying combination, inevitably, is incredibly unwieldy. The Devil Made Me Do It is a film that has virtually no idea what to do with its expanded, more grounded scale, and it clumsily stumbles through one drawn-out jumpscare after another to deliver an underwhelming experience. And while the saga’s claims of being “based on a true story” might have been relatively harmless for the previous two instalments, something about it seems especially dishonest and even objectionable for a horror film that derives inspiration from an actual murder that involved real people.

The Devil Made Me Do It starts out with a solid opening sequence, perhaps because it most closely adheres to what’s normally expected of the previous two Conjuring movie’s confined settings. We’re instantly catapulted into the exorcism of eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hillard), the youngest son in a family of four whose eldest daughter, Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), is in a relationship with Arne Johnson (Ruari O’Connor). As usual, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are in attendance, yet the demon that’s possessed David isn’t letting up without a fight, and it isn’t until Arne—who’s shown to be incredibly protective of David—allows the demon to enter his body that David is finally freed of the spirit’s grasp.

Days later, Arne—who works with Debbie at the local kennel in Brookfield under their landlord, Bruno Sauls (Ronnie Gene Blevins)–starts hallucinating the presence of a mysterious figure, and inadvertently puts the people around him in danger as the demon toys with his perception. As Arne’s possession gradually intensifies, he finally loses control on February 16th, 1981, killing Sauls by repeatedly stabbing him with a knife. The Warrens, dedicated to proving his innocence, take on yet another paranormal investigation, leading them down a rabbit hole that involves the legal system, an expert Occultist (Eugenie Bondurant), and a deadly ritual that further threatens Arne’s life even in prison.

If there’s one thing The Devil Made Me Do It has going for it, it’s that it at least attempts to strive for an emotional core with the limited storytelling resources it bothers to utilize. The previous two films proved themselves to be effective in this specific regard, mainly focusing on how Ed and Lorraine’s love persisted even in the face of supernatural hardship, as well as how the unconditional love of the affected families in each haunting ultimately kept them together as well. The same can at least be said to partially apply to this film, although the overall efficacy of its themes this time around is worth noting for later.

To that same end, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s performances are as consistent as ever. Even if they’re not fully bringing the acting chops that made the Warrens as engaging as they were in the previous two Conjuring outings, there’s at least some kind of effort they show that shines in some of the film’s more intense moments. John Noble (The Lord of the Rings) makes a surprise appearance here as a retired priest who previously took on a cult of Satanists, and his measured performance is easily one of the few bright spots in this film. On a more technical level, there’s not much special to be found here, but also nothing that actively detracts from the experience; visually speaking, Michael Burgess’s cinematography is serviceable, although the film’s sound design, complemented by Joseph Bishara’s string-and-chorus-laden score, does provide a more immersive auditory experience during a handful of supernatural sequences, especially the aforementioned opening exorcism scene.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as the film’s upsides go, as the fundamental problems that plague its narrative range from noticeable annoyances to inextricably offensive aspects of the film’s premise at large. Horror aficionados expecting a deviation from the Conjuring franchise’s traditional jump-scare formula—drain the film of sound, have a character wander around for minutes in a dark space before jolting them with something frightening yet ultimately insignificant—are going to be disappointed yet again by The Devil Made Me Do It‘s adherence to this unspoken rule, which isn’t helped by a bland occult antagonist and a demon that seemingly has no limits to its haunting abilities once summoned. As is typical of this scaring method, the film is drained of nearly all real tension as a result. Scenes that show glimpses of creatively sustaining some form of suspense are immediately spoiled the moment the film decides to place a certain character in a dark, unnaturally quiet space to eke out a shocked gasp from its audience.

Despite the fact that The Devil Made Me Do It was intended to be the Conjuring film to expand the saga’s boundaries and scope, the film almost refuses to make any meaningful use out of the plethora of newer factors introduced to its universe. The most immediate standout is the full-blown incorporation of the legal and law enforcement systems involved in Arne’s case, and it’s easy to see why this might have so much potential to it. After all, it’s easy to imagine that a new, challenging source of conflict would be introduced by the skepticism and mockery that the Warrens would have faced from the court and police, especially in a more realistic context than the preceding films in the series.

The Devil Made Me Do It, however, seems just as insistent as the Warrens to cement the presence of demons as unquestionable in its universe, even by wide-reaching governmental institutions. Arne’s lawyer, for instance, only needs one off-screen trip to the Warrens’ repository of paranormal objects to start defending Arne on the basis of demonic possession, and the police let the Warrens off the hook after Lorraine—with her gift of clairvoyance—successfully pinpoints the location of a murder victim’s body without tangible evidence. It all comes off as almost absurdly easy; the film seems to hastily set these elements aside as minor inconveniences to get to the more typical paranormal meat of its scares, oblivious to the fact that acknowledging the conflict between real-life institutions and the supernatural would have been a genuinely interesting and engaging quandary for the Conjuring series to address. It also could potentially have given the film room to become an interesting courtroom drama-horror hybrid, a fitting expansion of genre for a film that aims to expand its horizons.

However, The Devil Made Me Do It would have at least been decently tolerable as a popcorn horror flick if not for its “based on a true story” shtick—an unusual occurrence for a series rooted in adapting the Warrens’ investigations. It’s worth noting that numerous horror films in the past have based themselves off of real-life tragedies with relative success and sensitivity. Rarely, however, do they so fervently attempt to seemingly absolve a murder that, in reality, may have very well been caused by non-supernatural intentions.

Building off its refusal to incorporate the skepticism surrounding the case, The Devil Made Me Do It doesn’t even acknowledge that the real Arne Johnson may have actually killed his landlord—named Alan Bono in the real case—while perfectly sane and without any supernatural influence. While said refusal is definitely consistent with the proven existence of demons in the film’s canonical universe, it doesn’t make its dramatic liberties any less questionable as a result. Most tellingly, the victim of Arne’s killing—who’s depicted as a boisterous drunk before his death—doesn’t even get a passing mention in the film after the murder actually occurs. Again, had the film chosen to lean into the legal and more realistic consequences of Johnson’s actions while “possessed,” as well as the Warrens’ dedication to defending him while fending off another supernatural threat, it would have wildly enhanced the central conflict and made the entire narrative more engaging and complex. For that matter, it also would have been at least slightly more respectful to what actually happened to Bono in the first place.

The Devil Made Me Do It ultimately represents another downward step in the Conjuring franchise’s gradual decline in quality, which is particularly disappointing given that the tentpole Conjuring films have, up until this point, been the most reliable installments in this cinematic universe. It almost entirely lacks the creativity and scares that Wan brought to the first two Conjuring films, and the wasted potential from its expanded scope is only further fueled by its insensitive handling of a murder case that had real consequences for real people. One can only hope that an overhaul of the series is underway, because the centerpiece of the Conjuring cinematic universe’s altar is beginning to crumble from the same old tricks, and the spell (or rather, curse) that the series has cast on its audience is starting to fade from fatigue.

USA • UK | 2021 | 112 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • PORTUGUESE

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Cast & Crew

director: Michael Chaves.
writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (story by James Wan).
starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook & John Noble.