I was ready to write off the so-called “Conjuring Universe.” The original Conjuring movie was great, and The Conjuring 2 was pretty decent. The Annabelle pictures, on the other hand, didn't do much for me. As for The Nun, the less said the better. Paranormal chiller elements were becoming recycled to the point of impotency in the series. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It wisely goes in a new direction, shifting into full-on occult horror mode. Nothing about this franchise is likely to ever match the original. This is a satisfying scare show nonetheless.
Loosely based on a true story, the film finds Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) looking into a potential case of demonic possession. They attend the exorcism of 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julien Hilliard). During the procedure, Ed sees the demon transfer into the body of David's sister's boyfriend, Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor). Soon after, Arne commits a heinous murder, seemingly against his will. He believes – as do the Warrens – that he was driven to the act by a satanic force beyond his control.
A few scenes in the movie involve the legal efforts to claim demonic possession as a defense in court, to prevent Arne from getting the death penalty. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It doesn't have much interest in being a legal drama, though. Instead, it follows Ed and Lorraine as they attempt to determine where the demon came from. Their search begins in the crawlspace under the Glatzel home and gradually takes them to more and more sinister places.
The previous Conjuring films relied on two things: the scary stuff and the relationship between the Warrens. Nothing in this new installment is as terrifying as the “hide and seek” sequence from the original. Then again, few things are. Director Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona) crafts a number of pleasingly eerie scenes anyway. A bit involving David and a waterbed is terrifically spooky, as is a bit with Lorraine using her psychic gifts to put herself at the scene of another, related murder. All the stops get pulled out for the climactic confrontation with the entity responsible for the evil proceedings, too.
In regard to the central characters, The Devil Made Me Do It develops them in an unexpected, yet gratifying manner. Ed suffers a heart attack (not a spoiler) and is temporarily wheelchair-bound, meaning Lorraine has to take a bigger role. She works with a police detective to help find a missing girl. Later, a trip to the morgue causes her to put herself into great peril by becoming vulnerable to the demon. During these and other situations, Ed has to sit back and worry. He can't be beside her like normal, a fact that makes him nervous. Wilson and Farmiga really dive into that dynamic, showing how not being a fully functional unit impacts the couple.
A few scenes in the film border on being a little silly and – on first viewing, at least – some plot holes exist during the third act. Seeing the Warrens try to make the case for Arne's possession on the witness stand also would have been a welcome addition. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It doesn't hit the highs that James Wan's original did. It does, however, make an intriguing case for the possibility of satanic influence in our world. A key tenet of this series has always been that believing in good means believing in evil. This time, that idea is honed in further to suggest that believing in God means believing in Satan. And if Satan can do what he did to Arne, we're going to need God more than ever.
A horror movie unafraid to ponder such big ideas is definitely something to be grateful for.
out of four
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is rated R for terror, violence, and some disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.