Slim on Scares and Heavy with Unclear Exposition, ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ Works Best When It Gives Its Leads Room to Shine

A still from 'The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It'. Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are stood in a mid-shot, centre frame, Ed clutching Lorraine as they both look on with concern. They are stood in a living room in the late 70s and a window is behind them.
Warner Bros. Pictures

The third installment of the Conjuring series finds Ed and Lorraine Warren in 1981, when they take part in the first murder case in the U.S. where the defense sought to prove the defendant innocent on account of his actions being influenced by demonic possession. Most of the movie involves the couple trying to put together clues to understand why he was possessed in the first place. These attempts take them into new aspects of the supernatural where mysterious tokens and rituals play a part. The movie also introduces a new villain to The Conjuring universe’s rogues gallery to join the likes of Annabelle, Bathsheba, and Valak the Nun, but with a decidedly different approach this time. Like the former films, the Warrens’ marriage also makes up the emotional core of the film.

Despite the Warrens’ life-story having many rich possibilities for new tales based on a variety of cases, the plot of The Devil Made Me Do It feels lackluster in comparison to the first two installments. The main issue with the narrative is that although the film seems to want its audience to understand the “rules” of its case, by the end of the runtime, the specific exposition is unclear. After watching the movie with my mom and discussing it with a friend, the three of us all came to different conclusions about character motivations and what enacted the supernatural events. Unlike the first two movies which have very clear rules, The Devil Made Me Do It feels confusing and muddy, making the “ah-ha!” moment of the climax far less impactful. Even after I rewatched the film and made sure to pay close attention to how the rules were established, some essential questions go unanswered. Rather than mystery, it feels like thin and quick writing.

Farmiga and Wilson, however, both rise to the challenge of making something worthwhile out of the material they’re given, but the scenes don’t always play to their strengths. Wilson has proven himself a formidable scream king not only in the first two Conjuring movies, but also in his fabulous work in the Insidious films, particularly in Insidious 2 where he brings both monstrosity and levity to his performance. Farmiga has been the soul of the Conjuring films thus far, and embodies both the power and vulnerability that go hand-in-hand for many exorcists in possession films. Although both actors commit to the film’s few scenes that do let them react more pensively with the narrative, the film’s dialogue, pacing, and mise-en-scène never quite make their performances resonate the way the first two films do. Despite Wan’s involvement with the film’s story preparation, this movie feels like it needs his direction most of all. From Saw, to his Insidious and Conjuring contributions, Wan’s horror flourishes when shooting claustrophobic location-based crises, and The Devil Made Me Do It covers so much ground that it’s hard to build that same tension, both for Farmiga and Wilson as actors and the audience as well.

Even though the leads are truly the highlight of the movie, and although the franchise leans heavily into its insistence of being based on true stories, it’s worth remembering that the Warrens, particularly Ed, are “cleaned up” for general audience consumption. In 2017, sexual abuse allegations came to light about Ed, and a family member of one character in The Devil Made Me Do It claims the Warrens exploited his brother’s mental illness to profit off the case (some spoilers are included in this link). In any media based on true stories, it’s important to consider whose perspective the piece privileges, what gets changed and why, and who is erased in the process. Even for an audience member who believes in the possibility of demonic possession, questioning the Warrens’ approaches and the ways the films valorize the couple is a healthy critical position.

It pains me to write a negative review of a Conjuring film, and the film might be more enjoyable if viewed in a vacuum without comparisons, but that’s not possible with a franchise like this one. The film is worth viewing for fans of Farmiga and Wilson, and for those who want to have a complete picture of the Conjuring universe, but more casual horror fans may not find enough thrills or chills to make it worth the runtime. I worry that this installment might be the final chapter for the Warrens as leads, but I hope not. They deserve a stronger swan song.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is out in cinemas now

by Bishop V. Navarro

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter 

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