I’ve spent this whole month trying to figure out why I didn’t like The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and I think I’ve nailed it down to two scenes.
This scene1 is roughly at the 15-minute mark.
And this scene2 happens about 1 hour and 15 minutes in.
The only way I can explain this is through the lens of its predecessors.
In the 1st screenshot, Arne Johnson gets ambushed at the Glatzel home. The movie kicks off with the exorcism of eight-year-old David Glatzel. Arne, at the last second, pleads for the demon to take him instead, and the above scene is the moment when Arne becomes the Master Satanist’s main course for the devil.
Director Michael Chaves turns our attention to a mysterious hole in the wall. We get a shot of the hole followed by a reverse shot of Arne looking in. Nothing happens in the succession of shots, until the camera pans left with Arne and suddenly Isla the Occultist appears and lurches at him.
It echoes a similar tactic James Wan used in The Conjuring 2’s opening at the Amityville house, where we’re introduced to the demon nun Valak. In the sequence, Wan pans from what Lorraine sees in the mirror to what she doesn’t see lurking behind her. Chaves essentially wields the same payoff of a jump scare, and this is part of the fun of the Conjuring Universe – spotting the recurring visual motifs in each installment. But the trick doesn’t quite work the same way in The Devil Made Me Do It.
It’s because of what Chaves doesn’t do beforehand: create a proper buildup. The scene is supposed to be the first “big scare” after the opening exorcism, except this happens too soon for it to be as effective—literally 5 minutes after. (In Conjuring 2, that pan shot of the nun is the first scare of the movie, and then we’re introduced to the Hodgsons.) There’s no time to wind up the creepy jack-in-the-box, or get to know Arne, when it’s the perfect time in the movie to do so. Or, at the very least, give the Glatzels more moments of joy after such a harrowing ordeal, which would then allow us to feel Arne’s subsequent terror.
Chaves instead jumps right into the scares. This makes the first two Conjuring movies self-indulgent by comparison. I know everything about the Perrons and the Hodgsons. I know nothing about the Glatzels other than that their son needed an exorcism, and I don’t know anything about Arne beyond that he’s Debbie’s boyfriend. This isn’t to say the actors aren’t convincing or sympathetic in their roles, just that the movie has less and less time for them.
Chaves does show promise as Wan’s successor, directing our attention to the bumps and bruises around the house and eventually to the hole in the wall. But I don’t latch onto any of the sensory details because I don’t care enough about Arne yet to feel scared for him.
If you were to start the first Conjuring at the 30-minute mark when things start to go bump at the Perron house, arguably you wouldn’t be as startled or as alarmed. Having seen those 30-minutes – wherein we watch the Perrons move in, play games, gripe and annoy each other – we’ve gotten to know them. We come to care for them, and then we come to fear the same things they fear.
Wan laid the foundation for his characters before the scares happen and it makes a world of difference. This is precisely how Wan is able to conjure lasting terror by a pair of clapping hands respective to Carolyn Perron, or a lone chair in the corner respective to Janet Hodgson. Arne is scared by a creepy looking lady behind him, but intruders scare anybody, so that bit of fright fades as quickly as the Occultist in the scene.
In the 2nd screenshot, the Occultist plays hocus pocus on Ed Warren’s mind and tricks him into seeing a walking corpse ghost in his own home. Ed bucks up, busts out the rosary, and banishes the spirit from his domain. Except it isn’t a ghoul. It’s Lorraine, and Ed has been manipulated into wielding a knife against her.
This is supposed to be fake, a trick, Ed under a spell, etc. so I get why Chaves amps up the CGI. But the overload of effects renders the scene AND the undead ghoul both shoddy and generic. It’s like we’re not watching a Conjuring movie anymore but a cheap knockoff version.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen Ed banish things from whence they came. Take the first Conjuring’s exorcism. Wan mines so much Biblical terror using expert sound design and rattling the nooks and crannies of a practical set to make the moment as real and immediate as a battle for one’s soul. That’s not to say there isn’t CGI at work. If you were to play detective, you can spot the blurs and digital touch-ups. But the exorcism in the first Conjuring is far more practically achieved than its sequels.
Now let’s take Lorraine banishing Valak in Conjuring 2. It’s special effects-heavy for sure, but works miles better than those used in The Devil Made Me Do It. Valak is much, MUCH scarier than whatever that walking corpse is supposed to be. Her singular look and menace have been built up over the course of a movie, so she’s terrifying in any form she takes whether through a performer or CGI.
Maybe you found that dead guy creepy and I’m being too critical. All I can say is I felt nothing from this offensive lineman of a corpse. Chaves goes through the trouble of foreshadowing him even though he amounts to a bit in the movie that’s purposefully fake. The ghosts in previous Conjuring movies were often victims of the main witch or demon, adding terrifying layers to the story. The dead guy from the morgue, then, is a throwaway ghoul, and worse, an unintended gag.
Part of the problem is that The Devil Made Me Do It consciously moves away from the haunted house setup. It’s an interesting way to expand the scope of the Warrens, to make them more detectives on the road than paranormal investigators stuck in one place, thus shaking up the established formula. But in becoming a detective story, I think The Devil Made Me Do It loses what made the franchise’s premise so scary in the first place. Moreover, it assumes its haunted house setup needed fixing of any kind.
A haunting needs a locale to build its mythology AND its vocabulary. Banging on the doors, a wardrobe that opens and shuts on its own, a room where a grisly murder happened, etc. It’s a simple but effective way to build dread just knowing where the characters are. A haunted house is hardly confining in this sense; it’s a horror filmmaker’s playground.
Without a haunted house, there’s no setting to latch onto and anticipate the scares, no family dynamic to lull you into complacency, nor anything around the house to toy with and wrack our brains. That’s the sinister genius of these movies, the way they make us terrified of our own homes the same way JAWS made us terrified of the ocean. Frankly, ghosts aren’t that scary on the road. Because it’s not just their look or likeness that makes them so frightful, but the very places they haunt.
This isn’t to say The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t fun or worthwhile. I think it’s *mostly* successful in its detective story; Chaves aims for and nods to David Fincher’s Se7en at times and a basement scene right out of Zodiac—though the Warrens and their case files make them natural successors to Mulder and Scully in The X-Files. (I want my werewolf movie!) It gets to be funnier than prior Conjuring Universe movies. The movie also allows Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga to riff on the classic buddy cop trope of the veteran who’s too old for this shit vs. the gung-ho hotshot. And I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game between the Warrens and the Master Satanist, with Lorraine and Isla facing off like dueling witches.
My gripe is that it’s nowhere near as scary as the first two. Okay, fine, this series will NEVER reach the peak set by the first movie. While I didn’t love The Conjuring 2, James Wan occasionally upped the ante and inventiveness with the scares. The Devil Made Me Do It feels more like a novella or an extended TV episode rather than a next defining chapter for the Warrens. (Also why I rarely refer to it as “Conjuring 3.”) It’s worthwhile and watchable; I’d watch Wilson and Farmiga do anything as Ed and Lorraine Warren at this point. Its only crime is that it doesn’t add anything new to the formula or tell us anything we don’t know about the Warrens already. As the Conjuring Universe expands, this will be the case with every few new sequels or spinoffs because not all of these movies can be good, fewer can be great.
Sadly, I just didn’t think this would be the case for a main Conjuring movie.