Thanks to films like Saw and Insidious, horror fans were well aware of director James Wan's mastery of the horror genre, yet when he debuted The Conjuring in 2013, no one was prepared for the impact that film would have on general audiences, as it kicked off not only a multi-movie franchise, but also inspired countless imitators. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It marks the first film in the proper series that Wan didn't direct, instead handing the reins over to Michael Chaves, who previously directed The Curse of La Llorona, itself being a spinoff from the proper Conjuring series. Similar to La Llorona feeling like a run-of-the-mill ghost story, The Devil Made Me Do It ultimately suffers a similar fate, feeling more like an imitator that managed to borrow its title from the successful franchise, only barely being able to escape the genre's doldrums thanks to its endlessly charming leads.
After realizing that he has killed his landlord, Arne (Ruairi O'Connor) believes that he was merely possessed by an otherworldly spirit that compelled him to commit the crime, with Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) aiming to uncover the truth behind the situation. What they discover might be more frightening than anything they could have expected, leading them on an investigation into whether the world of the supernatural is really more disturbing than the evil that humans are capable of.
Both of the initial The Conjuring films largely unfold in haunted houses, with the spinoffs in the series allowing the opportunity to explore more exotic locales. The Devil Made Me Do It borrows a page from those playbooks, putting Ed and Lorraine on a road trip to connect seemingly disconnected crimes that have bizarre similarities. From a narrative standpoint, this opens up a number of storytelling opportunities, as the pair aren't merely being subjected to the wrath of unearthly presences within a constrained setting, but it ultimately results in the film still having to find ways to craft scares, most of which are accomplished in the same poorly lit locales that we might have seen in any other horror film, such as basements or morgues. It's refreshing to see the Warrens in police stations and in the woods in broad daylight, yet by bringing traditional jump-scare setups into somewhat fresh environments, the final product ends up feeling more like one of the spinoffs than an entry into the proper series. To an extent, Annabelle Comes Home, which takes place in the Warrens' home and sees Wilson and Farmiga appearing in supporting roles, almost feels more like a proper The Conjuring film than The Devil Made Me Do It does. This also means that the film feels like any countless other horror films featuring supernatural presences startling victims in dark places, and there feels like there was less attention being paid to the precise crafting and staging of unsettling sequences as seen in the previous two films.
While The Conjuring series might seem like generic haunted house movies to those who aren't fans, there are two constants that audiences have come to expect from the proper series: the narrative will focus on Ed and Lorraine Warren and will be inspired by their case files. The film assuredly delivers on the former, but the latter is where it struggles.
As is the nature of the belief in the supernatural, it's entirely subjective and impossible to scientifically prove. With the first two films, while audiences are witnessing intense paranormal events unfold, we know that these events had to be exaggerated from the reality, while also accepting that, despite what the viewer is seeing likely being more extreme than what really happened, we can at least believe that those involved in the real incidents believed these things happened. Chairs might not have levitated and ghoulish entities might not have physically attacked children, but we can at least trust that the victims believe these things occurred, and allow the films to deliver an artistic interpretation of such events. The Devil Made Me Do It, however, takes the Warrens on such a wild ride, from exorcisms to telepathic connections to precognitions to Satanic Panic-like paranoia, the story is heightened to such an absurd degree that it loses the charm and subtlety of what gave the series its magic, once again feeling more like a rip-off of The Conjuring than an actual installment in the beloved series.
Despite the film falling short of delivering any sort of quasi-believable premise, the film does fully delivery on the chemistry and connection between Ed and Lorraine Warren. Wilson and Farmiga are as charming as ever in the film, and without them serving as the rock holding the ship together, it would be easy to lose interest almost immediately. While the previous film saw Lorraine struggling to overcome a personal struggle, this film sees Ed facing challenges of his own, which alters the dynamic between them in fresh ways. As many other franchises might merely lean into the same villain constantly returning to terrorize new targets, The Conjuring always keeps the focus on the Warrens and how they bring out the best in one another, whether that be in their family life or in their grapples with darkness. Similarly, Wilson and Farmiga bring out the best in one another, leading us to hope for many more collaborations between the pair, whether that's in The Conjuring universe or not.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It might technically be an entry into the proper series, as it's inspired by a Warren case file and stars Wilson and Farmiga, but outside of those minimum requirements, there's little about this film that either sets itself apart from its peers or elevates it to the quality of its predecessors. The chemistry between the leads feels genuine and palpable, yet other than this delightful dynamic and some new locales, we're still mostly just given a highlight reel of startle scares that have been pulled off more effectively and in more inspired ways in countless other films.
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It hits theaters and HBO Max on June 4th.