I argue, with some regularity, that modern Hollywood horror films falter in large part because they don’t take their scenarios seriously. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It has me thinking I might be wrong about that.
The new sequel is part of a jumbo pack of interconnected films that was launched with the surprise 2013 hit The Conjuring. Until this latest offering, I had seen none of them, despite the occasional presence of actors who I like a great deal and will often cheerfully follow just about anywhere. I offer this biographical detail to acknowledge there is perhaps some meaning found the breaking waves of the new film’s narrative that I would appreciate had I witnessed the splooshing plot point that stirred the waters several reels back. I’m the guy who has no idea why everyone is so riled up about flag-disc man picking up the hammer.
I know enough, though. I know that the main films center on married couple Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), who are experts in the paranormal brought in to study eerie mysteries. And I know that the Warrens were real people, so the films are presented — with nary a wink — as “based on a true story,” like Hidden Figures or The Post. It’s just another history lesson, folks. Settle back with some popcorn and learn another amazing story of good citizens surmounting tough challenges and bringing change to U.S. jurisprudence.
The film takes place in the early nineteen-eighties and begins as the Warrens are pitching with the exorcism of a demon from an eight-year-old boy (Julian Hilliard). The plans goes awry, and the demon isn’t so much expelled as given a transfer. This leads to a pretty bloody occurrence that results in a young man (Ruairi O’Connor) charged with murder in what appears to by an open-and-shut case, at least until the Warrens slide in with the novel idea that he plead not guilty by reason of demonic possession. Much of the film is taken up by the Warrens mounting a cross-country investigation to bolster that unlikely line of defense. There are other demons, body-swapping, creepy crawls spaces and basements, and menacing artifacts galore.
Director Michael Chaves presents it all with a numbing seriousness. It lacks the freewheeling excess and poison-bubblegum sugar rush of Michelle King and Robert King’s Evil or the mounting mania of Ari Aster‘s films. It is a film freed from friction. There’s barely a quaver of doubt from anyone on screen, certainly no skepticism that isn’t pushed fully aside by the end of a scene. That significant reduction in conflict means there’s less uncertainty, and therefore less energy, to the film overall. It’s a long, deliberate plod to the stern ending. Maybe the most implausible aspect of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is that Satan’s manipulations could be this boring.