The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Released five Years after The Conjuring 2, The Conjuring:The Devil Made Me Do It (or C3) shows how horror movie sequels have diminishing returns.  I enjoyed The Conjuring 2, with its wacked-out funhouse sensibilities.  C3 has many of the same elements as C2, and this time around they felt too familiar.  C3 has several good scares, but nothing in it surprised me.  The performances were also underwhelming, with Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren and Patrick Wilson’s Ed delivering perfunctory turns as the self-styled demonologists.  Recommended for Conjuring completists only.

C3 opens with a scene in the Glatzel home.  Ed Warren is performing an exorcism on David, the youngest member of the family and likely the cutest little tyke to ever be possessed.  (Not to toot my own horn, but he has the same haircut and glasses I would have worn when I was his age.)  Seeing David in distress, the Warrens and David’s parents agree to pause the ritual so that David can recover a bit.  A priest arrives via taxi and poses outside the Glatzel house in a shot that clearly is an homage to The Exorcist.  David is put to bed and inexplicably left completely alone.  Since there truly is no rest for the wicked, David is quickly re-possessed by the demon who’s taken a liking to him, and all Hell breaks loose.  The adults carry him downstairs, and David’s thrashings reminded me of Insidious.  (It’s a bad sign when a movie keeps making unfavorable comparisons to better movies.)  Ed and the priest are unable to continue with the exorcism, the demon making David too difficult to hold down.  (I don’t know what it is with demons, but they just love forcing humans to move in ways ligaments and joints were not intended to do.)

David knocks the priest unconscious and triggers a heart attack in Ed.  Arne Johnson, boyfriend of David’s sister Debbie, grabs David and tells the demon to take him instead.  I don’t know if Arne had never seen The Exorcist and didn’t realize that was a bad idea, or if he had and figured maybe things would work out differently for him.  The demon accepts Arne’s offer and leaves David and enters Arne instead.  Ed witnesses this exchange but passes out before he can tell anyone what he saw.  Unfortunately, nobody else noticed what Arne did.  Things were a bit chaotic in the kitchen, if you know what I mean.

The Glatzels quickly recover after David’s possession is in remission.  Meanwhile, Ed is recovering from surgery where a stent was inserted.  Arne and Debbie have opened up a dog kennel, and their landlord is a literal dude named Bruno.  Arne and Debbie seem happy among the cacophony of barking dogs, and Arne is just waiting for the right moment to propose to Debbie.  As time goes on, Arne notices he is just not feeling that well.  He sweats a lot and sees a spinsterish-type lady stalking him.  He doesn’t tell Debbie about his experiences, however, which seems odd since her family just participated in an exorcism.  If any family would understand what Arne is going through, it would have to be the Glatzels, right?

One day, Arne leaves work early and comes home to Debbie and landlord Bruno, who insists that Arne fix his stereo and have a beer with him.  Bruno is the most hyper burnout I’ve ever met, and his taste in music is all over the place.  He looks and sounds like someone who’d be blasting Ozzy and Black Sabbath (or some Judas Priest!), but instead he plays Eddie Money and Blondie.  The movie must have had a limited budget for period music.  After watching Bruno and Debbie dance to the disco beat of “Call Me”, Arne mistakes Bruno for a monster and kills him, stabbing him twenty-two times with a pocket knife.  I know, I know, another disco-hater.  Local law enforcement finds Arne walking down the street with Bruno’s blood all over him.  He’s promptly charged with first degree murder.

Since Lorraine and Ed know that Arne asked the demon to “take him”, they ask Arne’s lawyer to offer a defense of “not guilty by reason of demonic possession”.  The movie plays some slight of hand with actual events because in real life, the judge refused to accept Arne’s “the devil made me do it” defense.  In the movie, Lorraine and Ed have to prove that Arne was possessed.  Putting on their detective hats, they figure out that the cause of all the trouble was a curse from an occultist who had no connection to the Glatzels.

The occultist placed an incredibly creepy witches totem under the Glatzel’s house, and that is what led to David becoming possessed.  As Lorraine and Ed research the totem, they find that a young college girl killed her best friend, then herself.  The totem was used by the Disciples of the Ram cult, and they seek the guidance of Kastner (John Noble).  Naturally, he’s an odd duck, most likely because he spent years researching the cult.  Since most popular movies follow Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, Kastner ends up being very significant to the plot.  However, when Ed asks Kastner why someone would target the Glatzels, Kastner’s response  attempts to cut short any questions about the plot by the audience

The ‘why” is irrelevant.  The ‘why’ is counter to everything the Satanist stands for.  His sole aim is chaos.  His nectar is despair.

Villains in horror movies don’t always have clear-cut reasons for what they do (i.e. Jason, Michael Myers).  But even the likes of Freddie Kruger had deep seated psychological trauma driving him.  Those who expend the level of planning and energy the occultist does in C3 should have some reason behind their actions, though.  She summoned a demon to kill three people just for fun?  Evidently, the two have a pact: the demon expects a soul as payment for services rendered.  The ritual the occultist is practicing requires an innocent to kill themselves.  This victim originally was David, and now is Arne.  Once they know the identity of the occultist who’s behind the related  possessions/murders, Lorraine and Ed proceed to confront her and destroy the altar where the curse was made.  That Lorraine and Ed would be required to enter a subterranean lair that is poorly lit and constantly dripping goes without saying.

While Lorraine and Ed confront the occultist, Arne is under the careful watch of Debbie and priest in the prison hospital.  I get that The Conjuring movies are a highly fictionalized version of the actual events, but the idea that Debbie would somehow actually be allowed inside the prison to be at Arne’s bedside has no basis in reality.  Same goes for the prison agreeing to have a priest there as well, reading passages from the bible.  Having Arne writhe in bed by himself wouldn’t have been that compelling cinematically, but at least it would have been realistic.

Ed is briefly bedazzled by some magic dust employed by the occultist, and tries to kill Lorraine.  Fortunately, Lorraine reminds Ed of their love and he sledgehammer’s the altar.  Arne is freed from the curse and survives, but the occultist gets her own back-breaking session with the demon she summoned.  (Her soul was forfeit since Arne did not take his own life.)  Arne is sentenced found guilty of manslaughter, and only spends five years in jail.  Lorraine and Ed live to fight evil another day, the squarest demonologists you probably ever would meet.  Who mourns for poor Bruno?

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson turn in mostly perfunctory performances as Lorraine and Ed.  Unlike the two previous movies in this series, they didn’t strike me as being engaged with their characters.  Given the blah dialog they need to deliver in C3, I’m not surprised they phoned in their performances.  This is the third time they’ve had to talk about demons and possession and whatnot to folks who are completely unaware, and I would get tired of having to deliver the same spiel over and over again.  Lorraine does have one brief yet fun exchange with a detective on a related case about seeing Elvis both before he died and after.  Man, how I wished C3 was about that encounter and not another possession-related case.

Lorraine felt more like a superhero in C3 than I remembered in the previous movies.  Here, all she has to do is place her hands on the ground where “something bad happened”, and she is immediately taken to where the bad something-something happened, and even participates in the deed.  Later, in a morgue, when Lorraine holds the hand of the girl who was murdered by her friend, she is transported to the shadowy figure who was behind that murder and the possession of David and Arne, I had to wonder, what is the extent of her power?  How can she tap into the “connection” between a corpse and her tormentor?  The Avengers should recruit Lorraine, since she definitely has some skills.

In her third turn as Lorraine Warren, Farmiga seemed bored with the role.  Granted, none of her dialog in C3 is memorable save the exchange with the detective about Elvis.  And as written,  Lorraine primarily reacts to events this time around.  As a result, I felt she wasn’t very engaged with the part.  The production’s costume choices for Farmiga lean towards the comical.  I realize that there was an attempt to make her look like the real-life Lorraine Warren, but with her hair teased so that it is raised six inches tall and the blouses she wears with way too many ruffles, she looked a bit ridiculous to me.

Wilson does what he can with Ed, but the movie makes the physical well-being of his character confusing.  For a while, he uses a cane and can barely walk around without becoming exhausted.  Later in the movie, he’s able to swing a sledgehammer around with no trouble.  Granted, the sledgehammer-fest was while Ed was powered by the villain’s evil powder, but I don’t think a demon can hold off a weak ticker that long.  Ed’s weak heart is a plot point until it isn’t, 

While C3’s characterizations of Lorraine and Ed were on the weak side, I was completely underwhelmed by Ruairi O’Connor’s performance as Arne.  With his yokel hairdo and his aw-shucks personality, he reminded me of Crispin Glover in Back to the Future, minus the goofy charm.  Sarah Catherine Hook also doesn’t have much to do as Debbie Glatzel.  Arne and Debbie are a cute couple, but as characters they are boring.  (I won’t call them vanilla because I love vanilla.)  Scary stuff happens to them, sure, but I never really cared about them much. The most memorable performance in the movie is John Noble’s Kastner. His character is the only one with some interesting dialog, and Noble’s quirky performance stands out in a movie filled with characters that were paper thin.

C1 and C2 had James Wan behind the camera, and his extravagant directorial style helped to elevate the standard possession/haunted house material to operatic heights.  C3 is directed by Michael Chaves, who had modest success with the mythic horror elements in The Curse of la Llorona.  His gritty and realistic aesthetic approach is not the best fit for a Conjuring movie, however.  C3 does have several good scares, but the events seemed ordinary and felt familiar.

The Conjuring movies may be based on the real-life exploits of Lorriane and Ed Warren, but the movies amplify their experiences to the level of a theme park ride.  This is the main attraction of these movies, getting to experience demonic possessions cranked up to the breaking point.  C3 does the same, but without the same impact.  C1 is my favorite of the three, and I enjoyed how C2 turned the family home into a fractured funhouse populated by Crooked Man.  C3 does the same, showing both David and Arne’s possessions full of joints cracking, bodies levitating, thunder rolling and lightning flashing.  I’ve seen this all before, though.  Many times before, in lesser and better movies with basically the same material.  For the first time, the Conjuring series felt like it was treading water, out of new tricks and resorting to old ones in an effort to hold my attention.  Sure, the inevitable jump scares still work.  But those are expected.  C3 is still moderately scary, but it is bereft of the originality that marked the first two in the series.

In the end, I knew Arne would be de-possessed, the villainess would be vanquished and Lorraine and Ed would make it back home with another creepy totem to add to their collection.  (Honestly, I would pay money to walk though their basement.)  C3 is a Conjuring movie, but it misses the earnest and energetic performances that grounded the first two installments, and its possession theme felt tired.  Like other current horror movie franchises (Paranormal Activity, Insidious), the Conjuring series feels like it is running on fumes.  I appreciated my time with Lorraine and Ed, but maybe, to quote Jerry Seinfeld, they should hang up their crucifixes while they still have something left in the tank.

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