In 2013, a movie about a haunting called “The Conjuring,” starring the charismatic duo of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, helmed by “Saw” and “Insidious” auteur James Wan, proved so popular it spun out into a multi-film universe with a signature style.
Sequels and spinoffs filled with old fables and creepy dolls shot with carefully choreographed long takes have tumbled into theaters year after year since, from the “Annabelle” trilogy, to “The Nun,” to “The Curse of La Llorona.” The third Warren-focused film, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” takes an investigative approach to a good old-fashioned demonic possession, covering the true case of Arne Johnson, the first murder suspect to plead “not guilty by virtue of possession.” "La Llorona" director Michael Chaves is behind the camera, working from a script by "Conjuring 2" writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.
Johnson-McGoldrick’s facility with both the tropes of the "Conjuring" films, and the Warren’s relationship, keeps the film swift and emotionally resonant, while Chaves pushes the cinematic aesthetic to the max. Thematically and stylistically, Chaves dialogues not just with the previous films in the trilogy, but also with “The Exorcist,” particularly in the opening sequence that depicts the possession of young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard).
The Warrens have a deep library of lore from which to mine scary stories, but the case of David Glatzel and Arne Johnson is deeply disturbing. It’s 1981, and the Warrens are summoned to assist in the exorcism of 8 year-old David, during which his older sister’s boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) demands the demon take him instead. When he later murders his landlord, the Warrens urge his lawyer to argue Arne was possessed. As Ed (Wilson) asserts, if the court assumes the presence of God every day, they may as well assume the devil is present too. The challenge for the Warrens is to prove Arne was possessed, not to any church, but a court, and their investigation sets them on a literal witch hunt, tracking down cursed totems they presume to have been placed by a satanist.
The "Conjuring" movies coax belief out of the audience by visualizing Lorraine’s psychic visions, but the central conceit of these films is the interplay between proof and faith, the seen and unseen, the recorded and the unrecordable. Like its predecessors, "The Devil Made Me Do It" manifests the act of recording and collecting evidence: tapes, photographs, evil objects collected and sealed in a basement gallery, as well as the blind, loving faith in what only one person can see. That beautiful, unknowable friction between the earthly and the metaphysical is physically embodied by Ed and Lorraine themselves.
In the first two films, Wan deployed a roaming camera that played with point of view in such a way as to trap the viewer into lines of sight that suggested terrors just out of frame. Chaves, working with franchise cinematographer and camera operator Michael Burgess, also works with the idea of vision, but takes a far more bombastic approach than Wan’s more sleek, sophisticated style. Several sequences are genuinely rattling, sowing chaos with sound and shadow, and one climatic scene pitting light against dark both literally and figuratively is terrifying, especially because it’s Ed and Lorraine who are at odds.
For the many reasons that this franchise works, Farmiga and Wilson are chief among them, as they take what could otherwise be hokey 1970s ghost-hunter characters and infuse them with a deep sense of faith, humanity, and above all, love. Indeed, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” is ultimately an expression of Ed and Lorraine’s love story, which, naturally, started at the movies.
"The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It"
3 stars (out of 4)
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Julian Hilliard, Sarah Catherine Hook, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant
Directed by Michael Chaves
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Rated: R (for terror, violence and some disturbing images)
Playing: In theaters Friday