After helming the sixth entry in The Conjuring Universe (“The Curse of La Llorona”), Michael Chaves takes the reins from James Wan to direct “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do it” based on the files of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren played for the third time by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The film is loosely based on a 1981 court case that made headlines after 19-year-old Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) murdered his landlord and pleaded not guilty by reason of demonic possession. Veering away from the haunting foundation of the first two films, Chaves blends elements of a cold case crime drama with the occult to give the franchise a fresh perspective while generating real scares.
THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)
Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden
Directed by Michael Chaves
Every franchise eventually has one film that detours from its framework. Chaves was the perfect choice to take over the series after proving he knows how to build tension, deliver scares, and when you least expect it, drop humor into the mix to give the audience a breather. That’s exactly what he did on “Llorona” and he replicates that formula here on his second outing as director.
Wilson and Farmiga as The Warrens have become a beloved part of the horror universe. As long as they keep playing the paranormal investigators, audiences will be drawn to the cinema. Both actors shine once again, delivering first-rate performances, but it’s Farmiga that steps into the spotlight with her best performance of the franchise. I’ve heard rumblings that this may be the final Conjuring film which I hope is not true. There are plenty of cases Ed and Lorraine worked on that could keep this franchise going for at least another decade.
The film opens with an intentional nod to “The Exorcist” as a priest arrives at the Connecticut home of the Glatzel family to perform an exorcism on 8-year-old David (Julian Hilliard). As Father Gordon (Steve Coulter) stands in the foreground wearing a hat and holding an attaché, while the family home looms in the distance one can’t help thinking about William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic that for many remains the scariest film of all time.
In this modern age, most horror films depend on CGI to deliver the chills. Chaves knows how to push the computer-generated effects to the limit without abusing them, never crossing the line into absurdity. The contortion scene during David’s exorcism is quite chilling thanks to a combination of CGI and 12-year-old contortionist Emerald Wulf. There is another chilling scene that takes place at a morgue and wait until you hear the actual recording of the real-life David’s exorcism played at the beginning of the end credits, it’s truly hair-raising.
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“The Conjuring 2”) and based on a story by Conjuring Universe creator James Wan, the film uses the Arne Johnson court case as the basis for the story. The 19-year-old stabbed his landlord Bruno Sauls 22 times reportedly while possessed by the devil. Ronnie Gene Blevins, who was born just outside of Houston, plays the landlord whose name has been changed, I would imagine out of respect for the family of the victim. It’s a small role for the Harris County native who does a superb job at playing rural characters especially bad guys as in David Gordon Green’s “Joe.”
Don’t expect many court scenes, instead, the narrative highlights The Warrens as investigators working alongside police while establishing a connection between David’s possession and Arne who taunted the demon asking it to take him instead. We all know how that worked out for Father Karras in “The Exorcist.”
The Conjuring films aren’t documentaries, so they have always taken liberties with the facts — the first film remaining closest to reality — just as Friedkin did to create his horror masterpiece. In “Devil” the story involves creepy looking witch totems (napkin holders from the Hardesty Collection, not available at Target), an occultist (Eugenie Bondurant) who looks like she time traveled from Salem in the 1600s, and an ode to the “The Shining” during the big finale. Chaves keeps the mood tense while fabricating real scares, dropping levity at just the right moment making “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” a worthy entry in the franchise.
(3 ½ stars) Now showing in theaters, IMAX, and streaming on HBO Max