Patrick Wilson & Vera Farmiga’s likability isn’t enough to keep this plodding entry in the smash horror series afloat.
Several movies into the Conjuring universe, we’ve mostly separated the real life grifters Ed and Lorraine Warren from the America’s Mom and Dad version of them on screen. If the movies work, it’s because stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga bring warmth and gravitas to them. They sell the hell out of the bullshit their characters are peddling, whereas the real-life Warrens often came off as prickly and defensive in interviews, offended that anyone would dare to question their dubious authority. Wilson and Farmiga can only do so much, however, and it’s not enough to save The Conjuring: the Devil Made Me Do It, a by-the-numbers snooze that trades in haunted house horror for a supernatural police procedural.
Like the earlier two movies in the series, The Devil Made Me Do It is based on a supposed real-life event, that of Arne Johnson, who, charged with the murder of his landlord, attempted to blame demonic possession as his defense. It didn’t work, but why should that stop anyone from making a movie about it anyway? In fact, a TV movie was made about it as well, 1983’s The Demon Murder Case, starring a pre-Footloose Kevin Bacon as Johnson. The Warrens show up in that too, albeit under a pseudonym, and with much less screen time than they get here.
There’s no question here, of course, that Arne (played by Ruairi O’Connor) really is possessed by a demon. It happens during the exorcism of his girlfriend’s possessed younger brother, David (Julian Hilliard), when Arne demands that the demon should leave the boy’s body and enter his instead. Apparently you should never, ever do this, and it’s only a matter of time before Arne is hallucinating, hearing voices and attacking his obnoxious landlord with a knife.
The Warrens are barely done with one case before having to immediately take up another one, and it’s clear that, to quote the sage Roger Murtaugh, they’re getting too old for this shit. David’s exorcism nearly causes Ed’s heart to give out, and he’s left weakened, reluctantly forced to hand over the reins to an emotionally fragile Lorraine. The movie Warrens are so kind and loving that you wish they’d retire from ghost hunting, maybe take low-stress jobs in insurance or accounting. But, of course, if they did that, there wouldn’t be movie versions of them in the first place.
Given how The Devil Made Me Do It was marketed, you’d expect that much of it would involve Ed and Lorraine proving that it was demonic forces that drove Arne to murder. In fact, Arne ends up a barely supporting character in his own story. This is because, in real life, that defense was thrown out before it even made it to trial, so there wasn’t anything for the Warrens to prove (though that didn’t stop them from doing the talk show circuit about it). With not much of a story otherwise, it ends up becoming a mystery, with Ed and Lorraine seeking to connect a number of other murders in the area to Arne’s case, and while “The Exorcist meets Law and Order” sounds like a great premise, it ends up surprisingly dull.
As is often the case in movies involving hauntings and/or demonic possession, once you start digging into the why of it, it starts getting very silly. So too does it here, along with the introduction of a human antagonist, which is really something a movie about demonologists doesn’t need. This character’s motivations are murky at best, and the reveal of how they’re connected to another character is decidedly anticlimactic. We don’t really know much about either of these people, and thus their impact is curiously muted, and adds nothing to the plot other than a throwaway “twist.”
[It’s] a by-the-numbers snooze that trades in haunted house horror for a supernatural police procedural.
Mostly, The Devil Made Me Do It is missing the sense of dread that permeated every scene in the first Conjuring. There are a couple good moments, like the opening exorcism, and a scene involving a waterbed that was unfortunately given away in the trailer. But most of it is just the Warrens chasing clue after clue, as Ed looks worried and Lorraine uses psychic powers that rival that of Will Graham in Hannibal. It’s disappointingly restrained. Even Joseph Bishara’s creepily effective score is only reserved to the beginning and the end of the movie.
Still, in a time when screen couples with actual chemistry seem to be in increasingly short supply, it’s always a pleasure to see Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga act together. The love Ed and Lorraine have for each other feels not only genuine, but indelible. We don’t need the frequent flashbacks to when they first met as teenagers to know that they’ve been together for a long time. It’s in their body language, and how lost they look when one is without the other. By the time The Devil Made Me Do it ends, they seem so worn down by their experiences that it feels like it should be the final movie in their part of the Conjuring universe. But money talks, and it’s likely they’ll keep making movies in this series until Ed and Lorraine are chasing down ghosts in their nursing home.
The Conjuring: the Devil Made Me Do It is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.