3/10 The Satanic panic never really ended. The surge of news about “Satanism” that started as a religious offshoot of the rebellious ‘60s and consumed the suburbs of Reagan’s America with fears of pedophiles and kidnapped children being used for human sacrifice buried itself deep in the American psyche and has been catnip for related media ever since. The fact that it was the Catholics you had to watch out for all along remains painfully ironic, both because of how obviously it is preists’ real crimes that are projected onto “Satanists” and because of how Satanic panic media is constantly sending up Catholic mysticism.
Two of the biggest perpetrators and profiteers of this panic were known frauds Ed and Lorraine Warren, who traveled across New England in the ‘70s and ‘80s summoning media frenzies to everything they could get within shouting distance of that went bump in the night and then hawking books and lectures about demonology – Ed, apparently with a straight face, claimed to be a “self-taught demonologist.” Despite all of their most famous hoaxes being disclaimed by witnesses and collaborators alike, they and their higher-profile incidents have remained prominent in American culture, waxing and waning with the general fear of Satan. Recently, that’s come in the form of The Conjuring film series, a collection of terrible, boring haunted house movies based extremely loosely on the Warrens’ “case files,” which I strongly doubt are things that they kept.
Brookfield, Connetcticut, 1981- Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) gets into an argument with his drunken landlord and stabs him to death. In court, his defense claims that he is not guilty by reason of demonic possession. Judge Robert Callahan immediately threw this defense out on the grounds that it was not only completely absurd, but it was also completely impossible to prove legally – this isn’t in the movie at all, it implies this defense was actually pursued. Johnson’s lawyer pivoted to claiming self-defense, and Callahan forbade the jury from considering demonic possession as an explanation. A month later, Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter, for which he served five years of a 10-20 year sentence.
The Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) were already in town for the exorcism of Johnson’s girlfriend’s little brother, David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), a child experiencing mental illness that was mistaken for demonic possession. Veteran hucksters at this point, Lorraine called the Brookfield police the next day to claim that Johnson was possessed too, and they were reportedly already promising several lectures, a book and a movie on the incident. Carl Glatzel Jr., David’s older brother, says that Lorraine Warren told him at the time that the story would make his family millionaires.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It presents an uncritical recreation of the Warrens’ version of events with a lot of other haunted house stuff thrown in. The actual case is portrayed deliberately inaccurately and barely part of the movie. It’s more about repetition. Scene after scene of fabricated funhouse sequences at calculated moments. Scene after scene of vaguely Catholic fan fiction to advance the plot. Scene after scene of the Warrens convincing cops and lawyers to buy into their nonsense, which is what this is all really about – modeling certainty and faith for religious viewers.
Parallel to the Conjuring series, which shares enough DNA and personnel with the Insidious and Paranormal Activity movies that they should be considered the same thing, has been Pureflix, the troupe behind the God’s Not Dead series that stuffs evangelical TV movies into theaters and then turns a profit when churches take group trips to see them, and that’s what The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It ends up reminding me mostly of. There have been several prior TV movies made about the Johnson case, and with Warner Bros.’ decision to slap everything on their streaming service the day it releases in theaters, that’s what this is, too.
Scene after scene of Lorraine going into a vision and Ed repeatedly telling her to come out sooner than she wants to. So much of the drama in these movies comes from how quick the Warrens are to panic. Pretty much everything they do in this movie, and this entire series, is scientific – in method, at least. They know exactly what to do in most scenes. They’d take many of the same courses of action if they were more deductive and professional about everything, all the screaming adds nothing. It’s just a hollow and obvious attempt to wring more drama out of boring scenes.
Much of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is exhaustingly familiar, but it never distracts from what’s fresh and exciting about it. There’s a striking black and gold colorscheme that makes the movie stand out immediately, with smart, creepy underlighting in night scenes and deep shadows in the daylight. Some of the CGI is absolutely terrible – I can’t imagine how bad two scenes in particular would look in a theater, but they do the same type of effect in a lower light setting later, and it looks much better.
Where every prior Conjuring dealt with an exclusively demonic adversary, The Devil Made Me Do It adds in a human witch (Eugenie Bondurant) whom the Warrens identify as having cursed the Glatzels. The interpersonal conflict adds a whole new dimension over what was before essentially a conflict with nature. The occultist’s plotline, as it fleshes out, immediately becomes the most – really, the first – interesting thing this franchise has ever done.
Michael Burgess’ cinematography is excellent, and the set design is spectacular during the climactic scene in the tunnels where the occultist has set up her altar. There’s also a great eye motif, and they rip a key sound cue straight out of Blade Runner 2049, which is always advisable.
Burgess, director Michael Chaves and editor Peter Gvozdas – working with True Romance and Face/Off veteran Christian Wagner this time around – all worked together on The Curse of La Llorona, a recent Conjuring spin-off that also had promise peeking through the schlock. They’re all clearly talented filmmakers who are going to be worth following moving forward, hopefully divorced from the things that drive me crazy about this series, and The Devil Made Me Do It’s snazzy climax is a great example of what that might look like. There’s a fun chunk of movie here once they get down to business – if you have HBOmax, skip to the 1:19:20 mark, fast forward through all the bits in the prison and have a grand old time.
It’s hard to overstate how much more visually and narratively interesting The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is than any other installment, and I still despise it. I still resent what it represents as a work and most of my time spent watching it. Film writers have whispered about superhero movie fatigue for years now, the same writers who refer to the Conjuringverse as the MCU of horror movies. Maybe this is what fatigue really feels like, the ability to look at this movie that is head-and-shoulders above its siblings and still be sick of it for existing.