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Non-Review Review: The Conjuring – The Devil Made Me Do It

It’s absurd to think that The Conjuring is probably the second most successful shared universe at Hollywood.

Of course, this is arguably more an indictment of the struggles that companies like Warner Bros. and Universal have faced in trying to launch competition for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it is still impressive that a gigantic homage to populist seventies horror has successfully grossed nearly two billion dollars across eight films. After all, this is a property anchored in a cinematic nostalgia which has succeeded through casting character actors appreciably older than most horror leads, notably Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, but also Linda Cardellini, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston.

“Holy Plot! I mean, this plot… it’s full of holes…”

Following a variety of spin-offs and tie-ins including The Nun, The Curse of La Llorona and the separate Annabelle trilogy, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the third entry in the franchise’s cornerstone series. It is the first entry in that main series not to be directed by James Wan. Instead, Wan hands over directorial responsibilities to Michael Chaves, who helmed The Curse of La Llorona. Still, in terms of aesthetic and scale, The Devil Made Me Do It is recognisable as a continuation and development of the previous two entries in the trilogy.

Much like The Conjuring 2, The Devil Made Me Do It is a curious genre hybrid. It feels like a conscious effort to build a blockbuster horror movie, incorporating elements from more populist films and tying them back to the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of classic horror films. Like The Conjuring 2, this hybridisation is perhaps more interesting than it is effective. It doesn’t entirely work, but it certain merits investigation.

The Conjuring films are nominally built around the real life married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in one of the most conventionally wholesome relationships to feature in modern mainstream pop culture. However, the films are largely a vehicle for a particular brand of horror nostalgia. The Exorcist is a major creative touchstone for the Conjuring franchise, along with other seventies horrors like The Amityville Horror or The Stone Tape or Something Evil.

The Conjuring films are old-fashioned in terms of their approach to horror. One of the most striking aspects of The Conjuring, building off Wan’s earlier collaboration with Wilson in Insidious, was a decidedly back-to-basics approach to horror filmmaking in response to the trends of the early twenty-first century. The Conjuring existed as a traditionalist contract to found footage horrors like The Last Exorcism or Paranormal Activity, as a more wholesome alternative to the graphic violence of movies like the Saw franchise or the Hostel series, and as more veiled nostalgia than the wave of remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Bending over backwards for a good scare.

The Devil Made Me Do It is constructed in a similar manner to The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, leaning on the same approach to horror storytelling. Chaves even borrows several cues from Wan, such as the long tracking shots through standing sets in order to orient audiences before the horror begins. Like The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, The Devil Made Me Do It is very fond of having grotesque monsters charge at the camera from dark shadows and is scored by an orchestra that specialises in scare chords. The film employs the familiar trick of having a monster enter the frame from the opposite side to the one intended.

These aren’t innovative or radical approaches to horror movie storytelling. They are not especially nuanced. Indeed, they are probably not particularly effective against audiences familair with these tropes. After all, while these particular tricks were old hat when they were employed by Wan in The Conjuring, they at least had the luxury of standing apart from a decade of films that had aggressively rejected this traditionalist horror film grammar. Still, there is an appealing and unpretentious effectiveness to the eagerness with which The Devil Made Me Do It employs these tried and tested techniques.

Making a splash.

Indeed, it’s interesting how The Devil Made Me Do It is much more effective when it relies on old-fashioned practical effects than it is when it leans into computer-generated spectacle. A simple and easy-to-reproduce effect of a box of cereal falling off a shelf is more unnerving than watching a computer-generated body contort in impossible ways. The Devil Made Me Do It arguably works best when it leans full tilt into the nostalgia by relying on tricks that it knows work.

After all, the Conjuring franchise exists as an interesting counterpoint to the more esoteric seventies nostalgia influencing less mainstream films like Ari Aster’s Hereditary or Midsommar. If The Conjuring quotes from The Exorcist, then Hereditary draws from Don’t Look Now and Midsommar lifts from The Wicker Man. This contrast in approaches to seventies horror nostalgia is illuminating, because it gets at something very interesting about the success of the Conjuring series. It represents a very aggressive attempt to position the horror genre at the heart of modern blockbuster filmmaking.

It Merricks further consideration.

It’s worth acknowledging here that this isn’t something new or radical. The influence of The Exorcist on the Conjuring franchise is instructive. The Exorcist is as pure a horror movie as exists, famously restricted in Catholic countries like Ireland for decades. However, The Exorcist was also a massively populist success. The film was a box office phenomenon, which seemed to confuse and confound critics. It also earned a Best Picture nomination. Of course, all of this predates the revolution of Jaws and Star Wars, but it still demonstrates the populist appeal of this sort of filmmaking.

The Conjuring 2 attempted to fold modern blockbuster beats into a conventional story of demonic possession, featuring a surprisingly intense car chase sequence as the Warrens try desperately to get back to the Enfield house from the train station. The Devil Made Made Me Do It doubles down on this attempt to strike out into more recognisable and acceptable narrative templates, teasing the possibility of a paranormal-inflected legal drama like The Exorcism of Emily Rose before settling into what feels like a satanic conspiracy thriller that pits the Warrens against an actual human antagonist with a clear evil scheme.

The devil, you know.

As the title implies, The Devil Made Me Do It draws from the infamous court case around the manslaughter of Alan Bono, who was killed by his tenant Arne Cheyenne Johnson. Johnson famously claimed that he was not guilty by way of demonic possession. It is a fascinating historical case. Of course, the movie’s plot has little tangible connection to the facts of the case in question, instead using the premise as a jumping-off point into a wild adventure in which the Warrens determine that there is a more sinister hand pulling all the strings.

As a result, the plot mechanics of The Devil Made Me Do It evoke like the mythology-heavy plot mechanics of modern blockbusters like Cruella or Spiral: From the Book of Saw. The plot of The Devil Made Me Do It very quickly suggests a much larger scale to the case than a single demonic possession, instead hinting at a larger pattern of behaviour with more far-reaching consequences. In that sense, The Devil Made Me Do It feels like a modern sequel, following the standard rules of escalation. Before they know it, the Warrens are investigating other connected cases and are directly targetted themselves.

An enlightening approach.

As with The Conjuring 2, this approach is more interesting than it is successful. The structural demands of a thriller like this actively undermine the stakes that a horror needs to function. Like The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, The Devil Made Me Do It still also wants to be a horror movie about characters being targeted by demonic forces, and that genre works on a sense of steadily mounting dread and anxiety that builds to an inescapable crescendo. Of course, it’s a cliché to suggest that every example of the genre follows the pattern, but a lot of great horrors work through that sense of encroaching and advancing dread.

The structural demands of a conspiracy thriller are antithetical to that. The Devil Made Me Do It is not a film with mounting dread. It is instead driven by flashbacks and exposition. This isn’t necessarily a problem of itself, but there is a recurring sense that The Devil Made Me Do It wants to both have its cake and eat it. It wants to continue to use the tricks and tropes of the haunted house and demonic possession genre even while structuring itself as something else entirely.

Getting bent out of shape about it.

To pick an example, the film opens with an attempted exorcism of young David Glatzel, who has been possessed by a demonic force. This might be climax of The Conjuring or The Conjuring 2, although it also recalls the Amityville cold opening of The Conjuring 2. This event serves as the springboard to the plot of The Devil Made Me Do It, as the characters try to figure out who targetted the family. However, The Devil Made Me Do It is also unwilling to completely sacrifice the familiar structural element of a young family terrorised through demonic possession. So it settles on a false compromise.

Roughly halfway through the film, The Devil Made Me Do It flashes back to David Glatzel’s arrival in the house. The scene evokes similar sequences in The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. This would be the start of a horror movie. David might notice something weird, or something might move, enough to put the audience on edge but not enough to scare the family from the house. However, The Devil Made Me Do It has no time or space for such build-up, instead building to a flashback sequence in which David is attacked by a demonic force on a waterbed.

A different sort of monster under the bed.

On its own merits, the waterbed sequence works. It is a nice high concept. It takes something familiar and domestic, and renders it horrific. The premise allows for some nice visual imagery, with shapes under the bed evoking both Jaws and A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, the sequence doesn’t work in the same way that it might have in either The Conjuring or The Conjuring 2, because it doesn’t represent the culmination (or escalation) of a creeping sense of unease. Instead, it’s just presented out of context as a thing that happened and has since been resolved, removing any sense of stakes or immediacy.

After all, the audience already knows how the scene has to play out, based on the framing device of the flashback. This is the story of how David Glatzel came to be possessed, before the exorcism that saved his life. As a result, there is no tension. There is no dread. There is just a simple statement of fact. The problem extends beyond undermining these sorts of scare sequences. The Devil Made Me Do It is constantly over-explaining concepts that are scarier for their ambiguity, because it all has to fit together as part of some larger and logical puzzle.

Putting the matter to (water)bed.

There are other interesting aspects of The Devil Made Me Do It. The threequel signals the series’ transition from the seventies into the eighties in some interesting ways. The movie’s opening sequence features obligatory and overt shoutouts to seventies horrors like The Exorcist and Carrie so as to situate the film in the context of the franchise’s other two entries. However, by its climax, The Devil Made Me Do It is drawing more explicitly from The Shining. It’s a clever shifting of the franchise’s frame of reference.

Of course, the film marks the arrival of a new decade with other cultural markers like Blondie and the aforementioned waterbed. It also grapples rather directly with the satanic panic of the era. For the first time in the franchise, the Warrens find themselves acting against a primarily human antagonist, a satanist who is acting to terrorise innocent people. It’s a sharp pivot for a film series that has traditionally cast its characters against demonic and supernatural forces.

“You raise me up…”

Truth be told, there is something decidedly uneasy about a blockbuster that purports to be “based on true events” vindicating the eighties satanic ritual abuse panic through the perspective of a real-life couple that the New England Skeptical Society described as “dangerous frauds.” To be clear, it is highly unlikely that anybody’s opinion of satanism or their belief in satanic ritual abuse will be altered by The Devil Made Me Do It, but still feels like a surreal and strange choice to make a movie like this at a time when significant portions of the American population believe that there’s large-scale satanic child sacrifice still happening.

The satanic panic was a real thing in American popular history, and it had very real consequences. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the casualness with which The Devil Made Me Do It invokes the language and the tropes of this strange event to sell a blockbuster horror. It is particularly frustrating because The Devil Made Me Do It plays with this iconography without having anything to say about it. When Lorraine asks why satanists would do this, a veteran priest answers, “The ‘why’ is irrelevant. The ‘why’ is counter to the satanist’s aims.”

Shedding a little light on the matter.

This is a shame, because it would be interesting to see a horror movie grappling with the satanic panic in its original context, and perhaps even tying that back to more modern iterations of the same fear. Instead, The Devil Made Me Do It reduces this to simple window dressing, to a trope that works to facilitate the superherofication of the horror genre by providing the Warrens with an archenemy whose powers justify the use of slow motion in action shots involving a sledgehammer. It’s all a bit of a wasted opportunity.

The Devil Made Me Do It s an interesting genre hybrid, but it doesn’t quite work. The film’s structure relies heavily on flashbacks and exposition, which undercuts the kind of mounting dread and escalation that a story like this needs to function. Individual set pieces work reasonably well, but don’t add up to a greater whole. The result is something of a weird curio, a trinket perhaps worth locking away for study.

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