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Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It risks the franchise’s soul

On paper, The Conjuring movies are pretty old hat when it comes to horror, to the point where they almost sound boring. In the least-generous reading, they return to the same “based on a true haunting” fodder that gave us The Amityville Horror and its many imitators. But watch them, and they make a great case for why originality isn’t nearly as important as execution. James Wan, who directed the first two films, is largely responsible for the franchise’s signature look. He brought a decades-long career in horror and a knack for understated imagery to the series’ portrayal of supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). His talent created a horror franchise that manages to feel richer than most of them, even as it’s continually being mined for spinoffs. Unfortunately, the latest installment, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, lacks both Wan’s direction and the richness that make the first two Conjuring films so enjoyable.

Directed by Michael Chaves (who previously directed the Conjuring spin-off The Curse of La Llorona, his feature debut) the new film is based on the real-life trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a notorious nationally publicized murder case in which Johnson notoriously claimed “The devil made me do it” as his defense. It was the first time demonic possession was used as a legal argument for a defendant’s innocence. (It didn’t stick.) Like the other Conjuring films, based on the Warrens’ stories about their cases, The Devil Made Me Do It presumes that Johnson’s possession was real, and builds a horror story around that presumption.

The Devil Made Me Do It departs from its predecessors in that it isn’t a haunted-house film. It’s more of a creepy mystery. The real-life events aren’t really the point — the opening half-hour dispenses with the backstory of Johnson’s case. In the prologue, Johnson is present during his little brother’s exorcism, which goes terribly wrong, resulting in Johnson’s possession. Shortly thereafter, he murders his landlord, and is indicted and imprisoned for the crime. At this point, the Warrens begin an investigation to prove to the court that Johnson was a victim of demonic possession.

Photo: Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros.

This setup makes this installment of The Conjuring feel like a supernatural detective film, as the Warrens tie Johnson’s possession to other murders in the area, and begin to suspect that someone is inviting a demonic presence to incite violent crimes. It’s a pretty good idea, and a decent change of pace for the series. But The Devil Made Me Do It struggles to reach the highs of the previous movies under this new structure.

Wilson and Farmiga continue to bring an uncommonly human touch to what, in lesser hands, could make The Conjuring films feel like a cynical attempt to cash in on a successful horror franchise, as opposed to a genuinely interesting bunch of movies about paranormal investigators. Perhaps it’s because the actors don’t look like traditional horror protagonists — they’re middle-aged heroes in a genre that favors the young, and they’re guaranteed to survive, thanks to the way the movies front-load the true-story angle. But Wilson and Farmiga’s compassionate, sensitive performances help audience care about the Warrens, and by extension, the victims of whatever case they’re investigating.

The Devil Made Me Do It doesn’t make the most of that empathy. After a promising opening, Chaves’ direction skirts the line between horror and supernatural crime story without effectively blending the two. Early visual strokes of genius, like a clever shot of a shower-curtain rod that obscures demonic claws, or an apparition inside a water bed, are later ditched in favor of gloomy set after gloomy set, with little of that early color that would bring them to life.

And in spite of their best efforts, Farmiga and Wilson aren’t given a script that plays up the Warrens’ connection and commitment to each other as much as their performance works to sell it. Unlike the first two films, which work to tie the supernatural case to their individual character arcs — Ed Warren’s lack of faith in The Conjuring, the state of their marriage in The Conjuring 2 — the two aspects only feel loosely connected in The Devil Made Me Do It.

A severe looking person in muted blue light in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Photo: Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros.

The result is a mainline Conjuring film that, oddly, feels like one of the franchise’s many spinoffs. At just under two hours, The Devil Made Me Do It is split in too many directions to really do any of them justice — the inciting possession, the serial-killer-style mystery it sends the Warrens on, and the lackluster lip-service it gives their relationship — none of it lands with the force of The Conjuring’s final exorcism scene, or haunts as effectively as The Conjuring 2’s Crooked Man, who will be the focus of the next spin-off film.

This doesn’t make The Devil Made Me Do It bad, necessarily. It’s just a film that doesn’t live up to its pedigree. As much as The Conjuring has become a mega-franchise — it has five other spin-offs, including the hit Annabelle trilogy — it’s long managed to avoid feeling like one, thanks to that central Wan-Wilson-Farmiga trifecta. Ultimately, The Devil Made Me Do It’s attempt to shake the franchise up with a new director falls short, and like the young man at the heart of its supernatural horror, it risks losing its soul.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made me Do It is in theatrical release and streaming exclusively on HBO Max through July 4. Before visiting a theater, Polygon recommends our guide to local theater safety during COVID-19.

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