There is a period of ten minutes or so at the beginning of a film when it can be anything. We have some idea of what to expect from trailers, posters, and other hype, but we are ready for the film to surprise us, to subvert our expectations and carry us into a world we did not expect to discover. That ten minute window is rich with opportunity for the filmmaker, and it is vitally important to the success of the film that follows.
In the first few minutes of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Director Michael Chaves sets up a possession film. If the ritualized prayers and weird body contortions in the first scene aren’t enough, the ham-fisted homage to the famous poster scene from William Friedkin’s masterpiece of the genre, the priest standing in the accursed light of evil outside of the Regan’s house in The Exorcist, should clue us in. A few minutes in, therefore, I was prepared for a good possession and an exorcism.
Imagine my surprise when the story shifted gears, grinding awkwardly like the clutch in an old diesel truck from what seemed like a trite but entertaining exorcism feature to a haunted murder mystery. Imagine the complete whiplash, then, when the gears ground again, and the film turned into a kill-the-witch cat-and-mouse chase. A film is traditionally structured in three acts. The Devil Made Me Do It is three different films. With some investment in the story, any one of the three separate acts might have stood alone. When you stand them one atop the other, though, like children in a trench coat sneaking into an R-rated movie, the whole thing falls down.
The Devil Made Me Do It takes its title from a briefly infamous Connecticut manslaughter trial in the 1980s in which a young man named Arne Johnson claimed that a demon who had taken possession of his soul compelled him to stab his landlord with a pocketknife. Johnson’s case would have garnered little more attention than a few “isn’t that weird” news reports and a couple of law review journal articles if not for the intervention of self-proclaimed demonologist Ed Warren and his wife, spirit medium Lorraine Warren, in 1981. The “case files” of the Warrens, a New England couple who rose to fame in the latter half of the last century by cashing in on Americans’ growing fascination with the paranormal through a series of expertly marketed “investigations” resulting in numerous books and publicity events in the 1970s and 1980s, provide the basis for the films in The Conjuring series. The paranormal interpretation of the Amityville murders remains the most (in)famous of the couple’s investigations, but the success of The Conjuring franchise has certainly replenished the coffers of their estate for generations to come.
The story The Devil Made Me Do It tells is about as complicated and neurotic as you might expect a tale of demonic possession, crafted by master hucksters to defend a man from murder charges in pursuit of their own fame, to be. There are spoilers ahead, so skip a couple paragraphs if you think, for some inexplicable reason, that you might want to subject yourself to this film. I recommend reading ahead and then spending your time watching a better movie, but you do you.
In the first scene, we meet the Glatzel family and their possessed son, David. The Warrens are there—as charming and down-to-earth as the very capable Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson can render them—and so is Arne, David’s sister’s extremely friendly boyfriend. David and Arne share a moment of tenderness while waiting on a priest to arrive for an exorcism and, when the exorcism doesn’t go as planned, Arne invites the demon inhabiting his girlfriend’s brother to go ahead and enter his body instead. Things start to get weird for Arne after that, until he has a freakout that would have thoroughly amused Burroughs or Hunter Thompson and murders his drunk and stupid landlord while Blondie’s “Call Me” (1980) plays on the stereo for some reason. Thus ends the possession film in Act 1.
In Act 2, the haunted mystery, the Warrens need to build a case proving that Arne’s act was a consequence of demonic possession rather than a freak brawl with a lame soundtrack. Sure enough, guided by Lorraine Warren’s extremely reliable and specific connection with the spirit realm, they find a witch’s totem underneath the Glatzel house. Makes sense, right? The Glatzel kid was possessed, the demon jumped to Arne, bing bang boom, the landlord is dead. Seeking a pattern of similar occult influence in other crimes, therefore, the Warrens reach out to police throughout New England. The search leads eventually to a skeptical cop working an inexplicable murder and disappearance in Massachusetts and a former priest giving the world his best impression of a thousand-yard stare after investigating a satanic cult in Annabelle, a prior instalment in The Conjuring universe. After the Warrens solve the case for the cop—drawing, again, on Lorraine Warrens amazingly detailed second sight—the priest reveals that his own daughter is the witch causing all the trouble. How convenient! Thus ends the haunted murder mystery film in Act 2.
In Act 3, the Warrens must kill the witch to save Arne. After a conventional labyrinth chase in the occult dungeons beneath the priest’s home, the Warrens destroy the witch’s altar. This breaks her magical connection to Arne, which pisses off the demon to whom she had promised Arne’s soul. The demon kills the witch, Arne is relieved of his demonic tormentor, and the Warrens have another little toy to put in their collection beside the Annabelle doll and the painting of Valak the Defiler. Arne gets a light prison sentence, but it’s OK because he’s just relieved to be free of the demon, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Writer and filmmaker Jon Boorstin provides an excellent framework in his book, The Hollywood Eye, to explain how and why movies work. This notion—that Hollywood filmmakers, perhaps in distinction from those working in other milieus, are focused on what works rather than what is beautiful or moving or artistic—is important, Boorstin argues, because it is the font from which meaning and aesthetic value and all that other stuff flows. This is because, according to Boorstin, viewers watch a film with two “eyes” which must be simultaneously pleased for the film to capture and maintain their attention. Only when they are suitably rapt will they be responsive to the film as a work of art.
The first “eye” is the “voyeur’s” eye, focused on realism. This is the little voice in your head that says, “that would never happen,” or, “shouldn’t they have run out of bullets a long time ago?” Next there is the “vicarious” eye, focused on feeling. This is the part of you that is carried away by the story, the part that falls in love with the characters or causes you to bite your nails at the suspenseful parts. Boorstin says that these basically correspond to brain and heart, and I can think of no reason to dispute him.
There are things this film does well. Michael Chaves builds on the world of The Conjuring with interesting views of sweeping New England vistas. This pleases the “voyeur” eye. The cast is well put-together. The stars share good chemistry, and, at times, their talent breaks through a scene just enough to please the “vicarious” eye. There are enough such moments to say that this a functional bit of filmmaking. It progresses like a Toyota Corolla from point A to point B. It makes you jump a few times. It has a couple of good monsters and, I don’t know, you don’t see the boom mics in the shots. If you spent money on a theater ticket or forked out for an HBO Max subscription to see it, you would be hard-pressed to point to a particular moment where it went off the rails.
But let’s be honest. You would be hard-pressed to find that moment because the whole film is a god-damned train wreck. The Devil Made Me Do It just doesn’t work. Its three acts do not cohere. Its characters are only developed far enough to fit in the panels of the comic book tie-in that is sure to follow. Here are some examples. It was unclear whether the demon or the witch was the villain. As a result, both of them were shallow, shallow, shallow. Defeating them felt more like a chore than a quest. The skeptical detective in Act 2: why does he exist? (More on that below). And who is the protagonist? I suppose it is the Warrens, but then who is Arne Johnson? I didn’t care about Arne Johnson. Captain Howdy in the original Exorcist film has more screen presence than Arne Johnson in this story, and Captain Howdy only appears on screen for three frames. Was Arne Johnson a hero? A victim? A villain? Who knows? In any event, it didn’t matter to me whether the Warrens saved him or not. Nothing mattered, in fact, because the story was awful. The fat, naked ghoul in Act 2 will make a cool collectible action figure, I guess. Sorry for the spoiler.
One more thought before I slam the door on this one. I don’t know what Ed and Lorraine Warren were like in real life, but the characters Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring universe grow more insufferable with each new installment in the series. They’re always right; sanctimoniously pure; perfectly in love with each other. There’s nowhere for them to go, no way for them to grow. Perhaps this untouchability was a condition of the contract with the Warrens’ estate—a $2 billion deal for New Line so far—but it sets them apart from the characters written in the round. The villains in these movies are not the monsters and demons, who knock down like ninepens in the end, but the straights. The skeptics and normies who choose not to believe in the paranormal must be set straight by the Warrens, and there’s a mighty horde of us. We’re the baddies, the fools, wondering what in the world is going on in these movies. They’re not for us. That’s OK.