The highly anticipated return of the demonologist duo, The Warrens, has arrived on the big screen. It starts off with a ferocious roar of an opening scene, and largely holds its dramatic tension to the finish of this exorcism mystery meets courtroom drama.
Every now and again there is a studio film that catches the attention of the entire Scariest Things crew, with much of the team heading straight to the theaters on opening weekend to catch the new horror hotness. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the third installment of the formal “Conjuringverse” featuring the demonologist hunting duo of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, two real-life famed spirit chasers in one of the more public profile cases.
The Conjuringverse has proven one of the more successful franchises, with spin-off films for Annabelle, The Nun, and The Curse of La Llorona all anchoring off of the premise of the first hugely influential film. None of those spin-off films can hold a candle to the scare factor provided by the source material, however, as the first two James Wan-directed Conjuring films were flat-out some of the scariest shit produced in the past twenty years. Needless to say, this film had a lot to live up to.
It is 1981, and this time the Warrens have been summoned to investigate the possession of a young boy, David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), whose family has recently moved into a new Connecticut home, and the boy is cursed with the spirit of a powerful demon. The opening scene is a ferocious display worthy of the climax of almost any other horror movie. Poor Julian is contorted and wracked by the possession, and the demon gets the upper hand on the Warrens, the Glatzel family, and the exorcist. Julain’s sister Debbie’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) boyfriend, Arne Johnson, (Ruairi O’Connor) saves the boy and ends the exorcism by submitting himself as an alternate vessel, Father Karras-style. Only Ed sees this happen, as the rest of the team is knocked out, but Ed is rendered comatose by a seizure and is unable to convey this information to anyone.
At first, all seems to have been corrected, and then Arne starts sensing the demon. At first, the indications are subtle but the devil soon overcomes young Arne. He has visions that drive him mad and he kills a man in a delusional rage. The Warrens contend that Arne is innocent by way of demonic possession. They convince his lawyer to offer up that defense in his trial for murder, and that he was not in control of his own actions.
They must solve this mystery before Arne gets sentenced to be executed, but the Warrens have little, other than a mysterious totem discovered in the Glatzel house to explain the situation, let alone who is responsible.
Eric’s Review: ★★★1/2 out of ★★★★
What an opening sequence! The filmmakers one-upped themselves with Julian’s exorcism. It is a tightly packed frenzy that despite the chaos manages to place you exactly where you need to be to understand what is happening. Subtle gestures like sweeping claw marks combine with the spectacular pretzel twisting deformations of the little boy will sear this as a memory that most won’t forget any time soon. If the film could have maintained that intensity for the duration, it would have worn me out.
Once again Farmiga and Wilson are convincing and solid as the dutiful Warrens. They are now a familiar couple to the audience and are the central casting of this entire franchise. There is a comfort level and confidence in the story that these two characters both bring. This time Wilson has to offer up the flop sweats and strained countenance of a man who is not in great health, though he still looks a bit too young and fit to be struggling that much with the ol’ ticker. Farmiga looks much more like the actual Lorraine Warren now, complete with her dowdy attire and hair.
John Noble as Kastner, a former priest who knows too much about the sinister goings-on, is terrific in this role. He is a sad and weary man of many dark secrets and is a flawed and sympathetic man who represents what could become to the Warrens if they can’t successfully balance out the horrors they have had to endure.
As great as the set pieces are, and despite some great acting performances by the leads, there are some fairly glaring plot weaknesses that allow the movie to achieve the greatness that the first Conjuring achieved. As a “Based on a true story” plot, it holds up as a mystery but fails as a court drama. A little bit of research turns up that the court immediately dismissed the argument of demonic possession, and instead the defense used a self-defense tactic and ended up resulting in a guilty conviction for first-degree manslaughter and a 10-20 year sentence.
What does this mean? Whatever evidence that the Warrens were doing for most of the movie was going to be inadmissible right from the get-go. The entire second and third acts were for the audience’s enjoyment only, and that the court drama was a sideshow. Without the Warrens doing their investigative research, the movie would be robbed of its central plot, but the movie leaned heavily on its “ripped from the headlines” provenance, and in hindsight, all this work feels misplaced.
The movie was strong when it showed the supernatural effects in the form of demonic delusions or Lorraine’s channeling, which all are thematically consistent with a potentially true story. The moments where, in the jail, supernatural events occur would have surely become part of a trial with enough evidence and witnesses to provide truly landmark court proceedings. A little moreJacob’s Ladder and a little less The Evil Deadwould have been a better approach for this material.
Another nagging question was how did young Julian survive having his body turned into a twisted knot? I would have suspected at least a bit of time in the intensive care ward. Ah, the flexibility of youth!
Despite these misgivings, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is well-paced, engaging, and frightening. The Warrens are always interesting characters and it is good to see the actors aging into the roles (even if the actors are still in their forties, portraying people in their sixties). If you are a fan of the series, you will enjoy this. You’ll just have to put aside the “true story” aspects of this as a bit of window dressing. If this played as pure fantastical fiction fare, I think it would rate slightly Higher.
I have to mention two loving homages in the movie. When Father Gordon (Steve Coulter) arrives at the Glatzel home, it is a scene that was near a carbon copy of the arrival of Father Merrin in The Exorcist, from the low angle, to the hat, and the priest’s silhouette. Somewhere Max Von Sydow is watching on amusedly. The second homage was toA Nightmare on Elm Street, using a water bed as Julian’s first encounter with the demon. I very much appreciated both of these tips of the cap. It’s always good to pay your respects to your source material.
Liz’s Review: ★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It was easily one of the most anticipated releases across the horror community and it did not disappoint! Returning to The Conjuring universe with Ed and Lorraine was like spending time with old friends: familiar and comforting while still delivering plenty of good ole jump scares. As Mike mentions below, the third act may have felt a little forced but the first two acts are great examples of why the possession horror tropes are some of the most fun- so many creepy contorting bodies! From the cast to the score, to the effects, The Conjuring 3 is a great addition to the possession horror cannon.
Mike’s Review: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Bang! Pow! Crash! The Conjuring 3 (AKA: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) starts with an absolutely explosive scene and never really takes its foot off the gas for the entire 112 minutes. There’s very little time to breathe as Michael Chaves takes the audience on an absolute thrill ride involving ghosts, satanism, demons, zombies, and our ol’ pals Ed and Lorraine.
Chaves expertly balances a fairly complex legal story involving the “devil made me do it” legal defense with the questionable paranormal leanings of famed ghost chasers, Ed and Lorraine Warren. We’ve obviously seen Ed and Lorraine in the previous two installments, and their familiar faces didn’t disappoint.
Chaves also does a wonderful job of crafting a perfect normal early 1980s space. Where so many films (including several in the Conjuring-verse) take a clumsy and half-hearted approach to set design, clothing, music, and cars of the era, Chaves hits the nail on the head. Nothing is too bright and shiny and nothing is out of place, or worse yet, inaccurately dated. The era is deftly crafted with an eye towards the plain and simple, and, as an added bonus, we’re even treated to a well-timed Eddie Money song (RIP Eddie Money).
The frights and scares come to life with the same warmth and comfort as being greeted by an old friend. You’ve seen them all before. Look left, look right, look left….eek! Whether it’s a rat running across Vera Farmiga’s hand, an obese buck naked slimy zombie flying at Patrick Wilson, or a twitchy possession filled with funky malformations, Chaves brings all the frights to the table. You’ve seen them all before, but that doesn’t mean they’re tired, nor does it mean they’re not absolutely terrifying.
The difficulty in the film comes about because Chaves is forced to tell two stories, or frankly create two films, in the context of a single movie. Telling both the legal story of Arne “the devil made me do it” Johnson and the Warren’s quest to find the source of the witchy incantations, is a bit of work. Because of the intense pace of the film, several scenes do whipsaw back and forth between these two tales of terror. It turns out this is also a benefit to Chaves in that that audience doesn’t ever really get to take a deep breath and fully process these two connected worlds.
If there’s any complaint about the Conjuring 3 it’s that Chaves, like James Wan before him (The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016)), is required by the Hollywood machine to create a thrilling and wild third act with a combative climax. The first two films had this same battle for the souls of the family so it should reason that this one would too. It all makes perfect sense, but it felt almost a little too forced and formulaic. There’s other ways to display the importance of family and the need for human love without leaning so heavily on a climactic battle scene as the counterpoint to this gentle message.
Horror hounds everywhere will be rightly perseverating about where TheConjuring 3 fits into the ranking of the three films and the overall Conjuring-verse. While 2013’s Conjuring is the gold standard for horror film-making, the Conjuring 3 might not hit this mark, but it’s certainly in the running for a bronze or even a silver medal in the horror Olympics.
Reviews by Eric Li, Liz Williams, and Mike Campbell