Review: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

Preamble

To quote Randy Quaid’s character from Independence Day (1996), “Hello, boys! I’m BAAAAAACK!” I won’t bore you with the details of my long absence, but it’s honestly great to blog again. Better yet, this post marks the first time I’m reviewing a theatrical release since The Invisible Man in March 2020. Honestly, returning to cinemas has carried a series of mixed emotions.

On the one hand, is the sheer comfort of returning to a place that’s meant a great deal to me. When walking to my local Odeon, I realised that cinematic experiences are like virtual time stamps that hold memories and times of years gone by. We don’t just remember seeing something but also reflect on the circumstances that surrounded that point in time. With that in mind, cinematic experiences are important emotional artefacts that speak to particular instances of our past.

I’m also conscious that we’re still in the weeds of the pandemic. Despite the record-breaking vaccine rollout in the UK, there are still many people who feel too afraid to venture out to the cinema. At the same time, India has been tragically ravaged by the virus on an unprecedented scale. Despite being very fortunate, I realise that we’re not collectively out of the woods yet.

Before I get to my review of The Conjuring 3, what did you think of the film? Will the Devil be enough in making you see the film? Let me know in the comments below. On one final note, if you enjoy my review of The Conjuring or like my ramblings on Horror cinema, then you can find more pieces at my second home: https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/

Review

The Conjuring series has constantly stupefied me. Its success has resulted in three mainline films and a host of spin offs; varying from entries about the Annabelle doll to a hissing Nun. But none of the Conjuring films have come together for me. They’re films with good moments and interesting virtues, marred by bad choices that often make them feel like silly dress ups of classic horror films. Despite suffering from similar problems that plagued previous entries, “The Devil Made Me Do It” is the best of the trilogy. It pushes the series’ central couple to the forefront, and introduces a refreshing self-referential spirit.

Set in the early eighties, the latest Conjuring film centres around the infamous “Trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson” (Ruairi O’Connor). After killing his landlord, Arne’s lawyer pleads not guilty on the count that her client acted under the influence of demonic possession. In a race against time, Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) attempt to find and gather evidence to prevent Arne from receiving the death penalty.

The third Conjuring film trades the mostly isolated haunted house structure for an expansive story. This reverses that dynamic of previous entries that relied on the strength of the families who were getting haunted as opposed to the Warrens. By doing this, “The Devil Made Me Do It” plucks at the string of its central strength, which is the relationship between the married couple.

As ever, the Warren’s dynamic is playful and touching. But thankfully, the film does not coast on this familiarity, and adds a new wrinkle to their dynamic. Previous films played on Lorraine’s vulnerability due to being an empath who could recreate and feel the haunted encounters. In this film, Ed suffers from a heart attack in the opening Exorcism and becomes a lot more vulnerable. This change results in some of the film’s most humorous moments, notably one line where Lorraine asks Ed to hold her purse, before she goes down into a spooky basement.

This quality extends to the entire film. From the plotting that’s about dissecting a demonic encounter (after its seemingly disappeared) to a priest quipping in the third act- “It’s just bad wiring” (in the context of a supernatural encounter) “The Devil Made Me Do It” is much more light-hearted and emboldened to pick at the cliches of its world and horror movies at large.

Visually, the film is impressive with its lighting taking centre stage. Whether it’s the use of natural light or the minimalist lit sequences (mostly via table lamps), this latest entry has the quality of a horror movie that’s close to being lit by candlelight. I also appreciated some of the cinematic choices. One standout moment is a sequence shot to evoke movement through a house while a character is going about their day.

And in a series that has boasted monstrous supernatural antagonists, it’s quite something that the human antagonist holds her own. Often appearing in silhouette with a chilling stillness, Eugenie Bondurant’s screen presence is formidable. Her character feels like a throwback to the female harbingers in films such as The Haunting (1963) and The Omen (1976).

However, despite these strengths, “The Devil Made Me Do It” is maddening in some of its aspects. These come from the choices in the scare sequences. Many of the big moments are constructed as though they’re a cage match in a boozy underground bar, with a loud sound design that drowns out what people are saying and mercilessly attacks the audience with cacophony. The finale also has this quality, coming across as a grungy 90s music video with flickering lights and an emphasis on rapid-fire editing to contrast its two settings. By the end, I felt more afraid by the filmmakers than any of the supernatural aspects that pervaded the film.

This is compounded by Arne largely becoming a narrative tool as opposed to a genuine character, who the film forgets in many sections. The film also suffers from the same mawkish sentimentality and religious righteousness that defined previous films. These qualities fundamentally take the bite out of any lingering horror that the film could have had.

In essence, this is the Achilles’ heel of the Conjuring series. It wants to evoke and pretend to bask in the same horror that defined films such as The Exorcist and The Omen. However, those films were never reassuring, but instead quite frightening and disturbing in the subject matters they tackled. Even in its best moments, “The Devil Made Me Do It” is still playing dress-up.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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