Despite only making up three titular movies to date, the “Conjuring Universe” from Warner Bros. has so far stretched to an ever-increasing, and mostly diminishing, set of spinoffs and hauntings only related to each other in suggestive passing. So it’s treated like a bigger deal when the film that started it all, James Wan’s The Conjuring from 2013, gets its own named sequel and stakes an extra chapter in the life of the Warrens, the sort-of-but-not-really-based-on real-life husband/wife paranormal investigation duo with Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprising their roles yet again. Like with the previous Conjuring entries, the Warrens are the heart and soul of what makes these movies work as well as they do, but in The Devil Made Me Do It, they’re just about the only positive comeback this film has in store.
Directed by Michael Chaves — the visual effects artist who cut his directorial teeth on last year’s widely panned “Conjuring Universe” spinoff The Curse of La Llorona — and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It wastes no time jumping right into the middle of one of the Warrens’ most infamous cases. After a botched exorcism attempt in the early 1980s, the aging Warrens find themselves tasked with proving the existence of supernatural influences that might clear the name of a demon-possessed man, the real-life Arne Johnson.
As the film develops its central premise, it’s actually a bit exciting to see one of these films engaging with a totally different plot structure. One in which the Warrens have to grapple with yet another curse, only this time under more public scrutiny than ever. But like in The Conjuring 2 from 2016, these additional points of intrigue barely register a pulse. The Devil Made Me Do It spends almost no time delivering on its own established potential, instead detouring into a fairly formulaic retread of the Warrens struggling to combat forces unknown with a few of their own tricks and wits. Though the film does feature at least one notable wrinkle in the form of a Satanic cult, which unfortunately cuts itself short by also being a stereotypical, even cartoonish depiction of the practice that is simply too binary to be taken seriously.
It’s just a shame these films continue to fall back on the simplistic gimmick of “good vs. evil,” instead of exploring the spectrum of humanity that would make these horrific circumstances all the more harrowing. Instead, just about everyone who is good is totally good, and everyone bad is pretty terribly bad. The film does toy with departing from this standard with the introduction of John Noble as a retired priest who’s sunken into a pit of Satanic rabbit holes that have ensnared his psyche. But again, it’s still hard to shake what could have been with this character, as he’s clearly a mirror image of the Warrens themselves, just a couple decades removed. But the film opts to lionize the Warrens, who were not so heroic in real life of course, without examining what could really make them interesting, relatable characters beyond their admittedly winning dynamic as a charm-power couple destined to be together. It’s still easy to root for these fictional avatars, and you might even feel a pang of heartache to see them more physically limited than in previous movies, which saw them as younger, more spry versions of themselves.
To that point, it’s hard not to credit the film for at least getting its own fundamentals right, as Chaves clearly has a knack for atmosphere and the visual splendor of a gnarly exorcism scene or two. The storyline itself isn’t exactly awe-inspiring, but it’s certainly coherent and easy enough to follow if you’re just hoping for the various, diverse set pieces to proceed efficiently to the next jump scare, and yes, there are more than enough of those lurking in the shadows, including some prison sequences that truly stand out. And it can’t be overstated how much more effective these horror outings can be when experienced in a theater with other fans of the franchise, where the collective tension is almost powerful enough to make you forget that you’ve seen what this movie is trying to do before, only done quite a bit better.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It opens in theaters and on HBO Max starting June 4.
Photo: Ben Rothstein / Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection