Review: Crammed 'The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It' light on scares
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Watching Michael Chaves’ convoluted and not entirely terrifying “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is like stepping through a haunted house attraction during the fall season. There’s some cool props, you might get a jolt or two, but the thrill inevitably wears off within twenty minutes once you realize where things are headed. Nobody will knock the practical effects of “The Devil Made Me Do It” - which is a direct sequel in “The Conjuring'' bloodline after spinoffs ranging from “Annabelle” to “The Nun” - but it’d be tough for any follow-up (let alone a third outing) to maintain the momentum and legacy of James Wan’s utterly terrifying 2013 original, which was was a low-budget haunted house trifecta built on a minimalist approach. In the years since, it has become clear, especially today, “The Conjuring” franchise assumes big and bold is better, but that ideal ultimately dilutes the core of what made audiences spooked several years ago.
More a fictional detective drama that fell off the David Fincher wagon than an actual, legitimate, horror film, “The Devil Made Me Do It” has dozens of elements boiling prior to settling on a cheesy whodunnit with a simmering legal drama baked in. Of course, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back as supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren and Chaves (“The Case of La Llorona”) plucks another “Based on a true story” phonenoman, infuses typical creative liberties, and tries to spin it into a feature length film. The year is 1981 (the first two took place in the late sixties and early seventies so the timeline seems appropriate) and the opening prologue begins with the exorcism of young David Glatzel (Jilian Hillard) - which contains several eye-rolling nods to “The Exorcist” - who inadvertently passes a powerful, demonic force unto Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’ Connor), a kind-hearted young man with plans to marry his sister Debbie (Sarah Cahterine Hook).
Days later (though in real life it was several months) when Arne commits an unspeakable act of violence, brutally murdering his landlord, the Warrens are called into duty, slowly uncovering a wealth of cases with loosely connected threads in nearby towns. The focus becomes trying to prove Arne was possessed at the time of the incident, eventually being the first court case in America to use demonic possession as a legal defense.
Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick understands and appreciates the roots of this franchise with plenty of tongue and cheek references fans of the universe will appreciate, but the flip-flopping narrative struggles to maintain itself as “The Devil Made Me Do It” shifts from an isolated thriller (akin to the first two pictures) to an overstuffed “Scooby Doo” episode with creepy old men wandering in basements, the allure of witchcraft, and mounds of plot exposition with the bare minimum in terms of jump scares. Something the previous entries didn’t rely on.
Wilson and Farmiga do a seamless job at stepping into these characters, and their persistent dedication at providing an authentic portrayal makes the wonkier elements of this sequel tolerable. Especially as Farmiga’s Lorraine uncovers numerous secrets and the true, satanic and occult nature of the case they’re investigating (I wouldn’t be shocked if, by this point, audiences haven’t already checked out or lost interest in the case). Eugine Bondurant gets mileage playing the tall and ghoulish antagonist, though her journey feels twice removed from “The Evil Dead.”
The basic fundamental of love triumphing over evil is the crux for “The Devil Made Me Do It” and Wilson and Farmiga have the energy and presence to make audiences both care about their adventures and yearn for another case. They can’t all be winners, but if another primo file from the Ed and Lorraine catalog of paranormal hits comes to fruition, I’ll be happy to see these characters again, regardless if the story can live up to their personalities, slick hairdos and perfectly old-fashioned outfits. Bring on the nineties!
THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT opens in theaters and HBO Max Friday, June 4th