Horror franchises don’t come any bigger or more profitable than the one that began with 2013’s The Conjuring. The seven films have brought in nearly two billion dollars at the box office on a combined budget of barely one-tenth of that, and pandemic be damned, the latest entry looks to continue that reign. The clumsily titled The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the second direct sequel to the 2013 original, but it’s, unfortunately, missing more than just a numeral in the title — there’s no James Wan in the director’s chair, there’s little in the way of scares or atmosphere, and there’s no real satisfaction in its conclusion. It’s gonna make millions!
The summer of 1981 finds Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) attending to a troubled eight-year-old boy who appears to have been possessed by a demon. The child’s exorcism is imminent, but the situation quickly leans into chaos leaving Ed gasping from a heart attack, the home in disarray, and the demon having vacated young David Glatzel in favor of a young man named Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). When Arne brutally murders his landlord a short time later, he heads to court with an unusual defense — not guilty by reason of demonic possession. The Warrens are now tasked both with resolving the possession threat and saving young Arne from the death penalty.
The real joy of Wan’s first two Conjuring films is in how they take the purely generic and tired haunted house tale and turn it into something spectacular. Wan’s sharp eye and fresh camerawork, beautifully sustained scares, and the warmth emanating from the central protagonists — the Warrens, where most haunted house films stick viewers with the victims directly — all work to create a pair of entertaining and unsettling films. By contrast, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It has none of those things.
Director Michael Chaves tries his best to ape Wan’s work, but as with his feature debut (The Curse of La Llorona, 2019) the pieces just don’t add up to a whole. Where Wan delivers both traditionally effective jump scares and slow-build terrors showing evil on-screen without music stingers or smash cuts, Chaves struggles to try to make either method work. Small touches succeed including a creepy bit with shower curtain rings, but too much of the film consists of dreary, poorly lit scenes — a problem throughout as the entire town appears to be lit by a single ten-watt bulb.
Opening with a very heavy-handed visual nod to The Exorcist (1973) doesn’t help the overall tone as it interrupts a serious sequence with the distinct worry that you’re watching a Scary Movie sequel by mistake. Scares are ultimately subjective, though, and while The Devil Made Me Do It can’t match the earlier Conjuring films it’s an otherwise generic success on that front as there are jumps and loud noises to spare.
Instead, it’s the script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick that’s more responsible for this being a lesser entry in The Conjuring universe. Leaving hauntings behind for a mystery of sorts involving curses, possessions, and Satanists is interesting on its face but said mystery is far from satisfying. The procedural elements fail to mesh with the supernatural antics, and the clues that tie both together towards a conclusion are nonsensical more often than not. The little boy was intentionally cursed, but how did they know which bedroom would be his? Train tracks are a necessary geographic clue — until they aren’t. Possessed people can’t read from the bible, but people possessed as a result of a curse can? The film is set in 1981, so why is there a copy of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, on a bookshelf? (Okay, that last one is more of a question for the set decorator…)
The bigger issue on the script front is what isn’t on screen, though, as two of the most potentially compelling sequences in The Devil Made Me Do It are wholly absent. When Arne’s defense lawyer refuses to introduce the possession angle the Warrens suggest she come for dinner and a visit with the infamous Annabelle, and a quick cut to the courtroom reveals she’s been convinced. Why not show us this logically-minded woman turn that corner? Later, the trial begins and we again cut to a conclusion without the benefit of seeing how the Warrens would try to convince the jury. Ed mentions early on that courtrooms accept the existence of god and should do the same for the devil — I’m not asking for a Miracle on 34th Street-like entrance with Satan walking through the courtroom to the shock and surprise of all in attendance, but not showing us the Warrens in action leaves their victories feeling a bit smug.
Wilson and Farmiga once again give strong performances as the faithful couple, but their usually warm devotion for each other feels a bit hollow this time around through no fault of the actors. Rather than pair this latest case with their own personal connection (marriage, family) and/or beliefs (faltering faith), the film tries to eke drama out of Ed’s heart condition — he forgot his pills! again! — and a hackneyed possession trope. Add in some self-satisfied glances, over victories both insignificant and offscreen, and the Warrens quickly lean away from being beloved characters and closer to the grifters and charlatans they were in real life.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It fails to maintain its predecessors’ high standards and instead falls to the level of the lesser spin-offs that followed. The first two films have left sequences and scares burned into horror fans’ brains — the clapping, the painting — but here? You’re just left wondering why these fools don’t turn on a light or two.