Do you remember the classic horror franchise A Nightmare on Elm Street? Remember the first film? An imaginative, ambient slasher with a strange but horrific premise? Remember when the third film, Dream Warriors, was announced? How bizarre it was to see the classic Krueger story transformed into a fantasy-horror-team-up film with a tone akin to that of a teen superhero movie?
Because I don’t, I wasn’t born when those movies came out and I stopped my retro viewings after the second one. But I do imagine the feeling must have been pretty similar to how I felt walking out of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.
The Devil Made Me Do It is the third entry in the main Conjuring series, the eighth film in the larger “Conjuring Universe” of films, and the one with the longest title of them all. It’s also the one that’s sure to leave audiences the most polarized.
For a lot of horror fans, we were just happy to hear another entry in the main Conjuring franchise was finally coming out. While films like Get Out and Midsommar were breathing fresh life into horror with their psychological twists, it had been a while since audiences were promised a traditional haunting that could scare as well as it could entertain.
The only films from the last decade delivering on this front, aside from maybe Sinister and Insidious, were the original two Conjuring films. In fact, a lot of the Conjuring spin-offs have perhaps contributed to the decline in haunting-based horror films (looking at you Annabelle), but The Devil Made Me Do It signaled hope and homecoming for the iconic spooky series. At least, it did.
The Devil Made Me Do It sees the return of everyone’s favorite demon-hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga respectively. The film starts with a classic haunting scene, a family plagued by the presence of a demonic spirit who won’t stop bothering their son David (portrayed by “Scream Kid” Julian Hillard).
In a sequence that is definitely not indicative of how the rest of the film is going to be, the Warrens and a guest Priest do their best to expel the spirit out of the young boy. This opening scene features by far the best and scariest moments in the entire movie.
Everything you’ve come to expect is present in this scene. Dark corners, loud noises, creepy lurking figures, and masterful shots courtesy of director Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona) and cinematographer Michael Burgess that create an ambient, horrific feeling the audience shares with the character. Julian Hillard’s show-stealing performance, which calls back to The Exorcist in the best ways, separates the quality of this scene from the rest which…well, we’ll get into.
David is eventually freed from the dark spirit’s grip when his sister’s boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) invites the spirit into his body instead. Because the movie needs conflict and a reason to be nearly two hours long, Ed is unable to tell anyone about Arne’s demonic ailment thanks to a Devil-induced heart attack that sends him to the ER. And Arne just doesn’t tell anyone because…he didn’t feel like it? We’re just told to roll with it, because this is honestly where the movie goes in just about every direction except the one you might have expected.
What follows is an “X-Files” deleted episode as Ed and Lorraine put on their lawyer badges and try to save Arne from the death penalty by trying to prove that he was possessed. Their investigation leads them to a secret conspiracy, a death cult, and a multitude of tonal shifts and soundtrack choices that will have you wondering why “Suspicious Minds” is so popular this year.
The movie never quite comes back to the tone set with the opening scene either. We’re led instead into the investigation and treated to more of a murder mystery than a traditional haunting. This isn’t inherently awful, but the film doesn’t really want to commit to this idea.
The Conjuring movies aren’t exactly what you’d call original. At least not anymore. While even the original borrowed heavily from classic haunt films of the past, it fully committed to this idea and became one of greatest, scariest horrors of modern years. This new entry into the franchise doesn’t really commit to the idea of a generic, “Whodunnit?” story. Instead it’s constantly at war with the clichés of the franchise.
Too often the pacing and tone of the film would switch from an investigative procedural drama to a hair-raising jump scare sequence. It honestly made the scares less scarier, since the constant tonal changes would indicate when they were coming.
All in all, The Devil Made Me Do It could have benefited greatly from sticking with just one of its ideas. It may have been out of character and a bit generic, but the lawyer drama plot would have been interesting to see if they had just fully committed to the concept. At least, it would have been a bold direction to take the series. There’s a reason Dream Warriors has such a cult following despite its shortcomings.
Instead, The Devil Made Me Do It tries to do something new with the franchise, while simultaneously being dragged down by its reliance on old franchise tactics. Tactics that only feel properly utilized in an opening scene that treats them as strengths rather than side-show attraction stops in between something entirely different. To be fair, this isn’t the worst entry in the franchise, but it’s certainly the weakest of the main trilogy, which is scary enough.