Despite the innovation of much of the modern horror landscape, nothing gets the heart pounding quite like a classic haunted house tale. In fact, the success of “The Conjuring” Universe depends on it. With eight movies, including spin-offs like “Annabelle” and “The Curse of La Llorona,” the franchise chronicles the real-life careers of Ed and Lorraine Warren, famed paranormal investigators, as well as the related subjects of their investigations. Thus, each film’s opening credits merit the terrifying “Based on a true story” tagline. The newest installment, titled “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” was released on June 4, opening in first place at the box offices with an estimated $24 million.
Synopsis (Including Some Spoilers)
“The Devil Made Me Do It” is paced differently than its predecessors. Instead of depicting the slow-burn process of demonic occupation — three stages, which include infestation, oppression and possession, as described by the Warrens — the film throws audiences directly in the middle of an exorcism. Young David Glatzel has been possessed, and both his family and the Warrens are trying to save him. The opening sequence includes a fun visual reference to the iconic horror classic “The Exorcist,” and it culminates in an intense showdown as a priest attempts to rid the 8-year-old child of the demon inhabiting his body.
In a moment of desperation, Arne Johnson, boyfriend to David’s older sister Debbie, selflessly invites the demon to possess him instead. Soon after, Arne murders his landlord by stabbing him 22 times while under demonic influence. The case that follows requires the Warrens to find and produce evidence of Arne’s possession in order to save him from the death penalty.
The Warrens’ search also necessitates the use of Lorraine’s psychic abilities. They soon discover that Arne’s possession differs from typical demonic activity and find themselves entrapped in the plans of a master Satanist. Ed and Lorraine have to locate the source of the evil and stop the perpetrator before it’s too late — for both Arne and themselves.
The title of “The Devil Made Me Do It” might sound familiar, and that’s because it is based on a famous case. The Trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson was the first known United States court case in which demonic possession was used as a defense.
On Feb. 16, 1981, Arne Johnson stabbed Alan Bono more than 20 times. This occurred after Johnson attending the fourth rite performed to expel the 42 demons allegedly present in 11-year-old David Glatzel’s body. Johnson had no prior criminal record.
Johnson’s defense attorney, Martin Minnella, cited two British court cases that had used demonic possession defenses, but the presiding Judge Robert Callahan denied the defense on the grounds that related evidence and testimony would be “irrelative and unscientific.” Minella opted instead for an argument of self-defense.
On Nov. 24 of that same year, Arne Johnson was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter. He received a sentence of a minimum of 10 years and served five of those years on good behavior. In the time since, Carl Glatzel, one of David’s brothers, has sued the Warrens for unspecified damages caused by their creation of a “hoax” designed to profit off of his family’s trauma. Arne Johnson and Debbie Glatzel married soon after Johnson’s release from prison, and the two support the Warrens’ claims to this day.
Ed and Lorraine Warren have had an eventful career. Connected to the back of their Connecticut home, their now-closed Occult Museum housed a number of allegedly paranormal items, including the Perron family music box, a haunted Shadow Doll and the infamous Annabelle, which is actually a Raggedy Ann doll. Their real-life cases include the Enfield poltergeist and the Amityville Horror.
“The Conjuring” remains a solid modern horror film. It’s not intensely new or subversive, like Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking social thrillers or Ari Aster’s deeply disturbing cult horrors, but it takes a classic format and recreates it with momentous success. Every element, from the acting and clever cinematography to the palpable tension found throughout the film, elevates the movie to iconic status.
“The Devil Made Me Do It” doesn’t quite follow through on that legacy. Granted, the first act does feel tonally consistent with previous projects. It has all the features “The Conjuring” Universe fans are likely to expect: frenzied Latin chants, buckets of blood and abnormally contorted bodies. Yet it’s as if the creators were trying to cram all of those benchmarks into the first 10 minutes.
After that, the film suffers an identity crisis. The trailer seems to promise a crime drama with a touch of the supernatural, but the characters spend only a matter of minutes in the courtroom. Instead, audiences watch the Warrens traverse through a series of choppy moments, many of which feel promising at first glance but ultimately contribute to an overall sense of disconnect.
For example, there is a scene in which the Warrens break into a funeral home so that Lorraine can touch the hand of a deceased girl and use her clairvoyant powers to locate the Satanist who is terrorizing people. In the darkened mortuary, Lorraine opens up a mental link with the Satanist, though the two-way bridge quickly becomes a problem as their adversary reanimates a corpse to attack them. The scene is tense and deeply unsettling, but it’s over too quickly.
Ruairi O’Connor’s performance as Arne Johnson is raw and compelling, putting a likable face to the faux antagonist. His guilt and continued struggle with the demon haunting him could have added an entirely new dimension to the film, but audiences see very little of him.
The majority of screen time remains with Ed and Lorraine. As always, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga bring an undeniable charm to the famed demonologists. Despite real-life controversies including abuse allegations and the debunking of cases like Amityville, the Warrens’ on-screen counterparts are the heart and soul of the franchise. “The Devil Made Me Do It” even includes a flashback to the beginning of their love story as a young couple. Still, they also bring limited stakes to any scene they’re in, as audiences are well aware that the real Ed and Lorraine have lived to tell the tale.
“The Devil Made Me Do It” wanted to be something different than its predecessors, but it seems it couldn’t decide what that something might be. It lacks the sustained tension of a typical haunting, and the jump scares elicit only a second or two of muted shock. With that being said, it managed to delegate the obligatory Annabelle reference to a one-off line, and it actively worked to avoid some of the pitfalls that have become commonplace in the franchise.
While this latest installment is decidedly not scary, it’s still a fun watch, and it’s a sign that future sequels might also endeavor to break the mold and try something new.