‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ Summons Demonic Forces With Standard Spooks

Quite a lot of horror movies are still depending on God vs. Satan for material. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is the latest installment in the best recent franchise to use the old batch of holy war tricks to good use. Our favorite demonologists, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are back to do battle — with demons, of course. Like the previous “Conjuring” entries, this one shamelessly purports to be based on real events. This didn’t matter in the other two movies since they were directed with visceral energy and aesthetic tributes to classic horror cinema. “The Devil Made Me Do It” has some moments worthy of the series, but it also feels like more of a throwaway boo fest. 

We catch up with the Warrens in 1981 as they witness the exorcism of one David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), a young boy in Massachusetts possessed by demonic forces. As tends to be the case when Satan’s minions inhabit a movie kid, David contorts on a table and nearly does a spider-walk or two. The exorcism becomes so brutal that Ed is left momentarily and seriously injured at the hospital. While Ed recovers the situation becomes more perilous when Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), who is dating David’s sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), is now hounded by the same evil spirit that possessed David. Cursed with visions and demonic assaults, Arne ends up killing Bruno (Ronnie Gene Blevins), Debbie’s boss at the world’s ugliest dog kennel. Now under arrest, Arne professes to having been under the spell of other forces. A recovering Ed and Lorraine arrive on the case and begin investigating what or who are channeling satanic elements into the lives of Arne and Debbie. 

The whole “Conjuring” movie universe now spans about seven titles, but this is the second direct sequel to 2013’s cult hit “The Conjuring.” Directed by James Wan, that first movie and “The Conjuring 2” are still exciting pieces of horror cinema. They launched a popular franchise while borrowing from the textures of ‘70s horror films, winking at everything from “The Omen” to “The Exorcist.” By basing the premise on the Warrens, who were real-life paranormal investigators, “The Conjuring” even nodded slightly at our cultural love for supposedly nonfiction scares.  Now that Wan has officially switched over to the dominant franchise of our time, superheroes, with “Aquaman,” he’s mostly been producing the spinoffs. “The Devil Made Me Do It” is directed by Michael Chaves, who first delved into this genre with “The Maiden” and “The Curse of La Llorona.” For his own “Conjuring” contribution, Chaves dumps much of the vintage look of the previous movies, going for a more straight-forward horror look. Although cinematographer Michael Burgess does a rich job in crafting shadows and fire-lit framing. The film never looks mundane but fittingly gothic. Chaves would never dream of getting rid of the franchise’s trademark vintage opening titles, which are still here with an “Unsolved Mysteries”-style title card giving us the basics of this “true story.”

It is in the true story “The Devil Made Me Do It” bases itself on that this entry also finds its weaker points. All these movies essentially take an actual case the Warrens investigated and amps up the volume, with added specters like the famous nun demon that later inspired the tepid spinoff, “The Nun.” But while the previous films had fun playing with the concept of haunted homes, and in the case of “The Conjuring 2,” taking the action abroad to England, this one places the Warrens in a rather limited legal thriller. After Arne is arrested the Warrens decide they will prove to the court that he was acting while being possessed. This first leads to a scene involving Arne’s lawyer and a wink at the Warrens’ famous Annabelle doll that fans will love. But then it becomes a useless plot point because of course demon possession was never proven in the actual case, so the whole narrative shifts to the couple obsessively trying to find who left a cursed satanic object beneath the Glatzel home. Having run out of specific demons, the movie now pits the Warrens against that one go-to foe every demonologist needs—Satanists. Crammed in there is a recurring, but pleasant, flashback to when Ed and Lorraine first met as teenagers and kissed underneath a dreamy canopy. This is another welcome treat for fans who have made the Warrens modern horror icons. But the other love story between Arne and Debbie never flies, and even original possession victim David virtually disappears. 

The core of the movie is comprised of good horror scenes glued together in a bare plot. Chaves is an excellent director who can conjure some real suspense and jumps. He stages one memorably eerie moment inside a morgue with a bloated corpse and another involving peeking into a rat hole. In the tradition of many good horror directors he effectively uses unexpected song choices, like Blondie’s “Call Me” for a merciless killing. Micro moments can get under your skin, as when Lorraine reluctantly touches the wet hand of a decomposed corpse to make psychic contact with dark powers. We’ve seen dead flowers and shattering vases before in scary thrillers, but Chaves makes such moments work because of how he edits and positions the camera. Plus the boney talisman used by the villains to curse victims looks convincingly creepy. Alas, compared to the demonic nuns, possessed dolls and rhyming monsters the Warrens have battled before, the villain of “The Devil Made Me Do It” turns out to be quite a small leaguer. Though for the devoted it might be real fun to see the final standoff when, as we expect, hell is unleashed, etc., etc.

Along with the better elements of “The Devil Made Me Do It” are Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who turned the Warrens into the kind of movie couple you really want to root for. They love each other but are never corny, and even when fighting entities you want to roll your eyes at, they genuinely seem to care about each other. They may be Catholic warriors with the manners of conservative Protestants, but that’s part of what makes them endearing. Along with some of Chaves’s better-staged scares,  having them back might be enough to satisfy the cravings of “Conjuring” fans who have sat through all the “Annabelle” spinoffs and “The Nun,” getting to see their heroes only briefly at the beginning or end of those movies. There are worse third sequels than “The Devil Made Me Do It,” this one falls somewhere in the middle in terms of how it compares to its predecessors. Even when the story runs out of gas, there’s plenty to at least make your date or companion spill popcorn on your lap. If there is a next round the filmmakers should still seek a richer case file.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” releases June 4 on HBO Max and theaters nationwide.