Many mainstream horror films have titles that range from the drab to the dull and often, at the very least, can be called “dumb,” for lack of a better phrase, to some extent: Truth or Dare is painfully straightforward; Fantasy Island is impressively vague; Insidious: The Last Key, much like the film itself, has an utterly pointless subtitle that needn’t exist at all. Michael Chaves’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, in contrast, is a wonderful title – knowingly silly yet fundamentally sinister; a clever encapsulation of the plot with the fever, vigour, and lauded intensity that makes these movies so damn fun to watch.
The allegedly ‘true story’, this time around, is, indeed, very much so like the title suggests: a young man, Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), in 1981, is accused of murder after being found smothered in blood by the police on the side of the road. But instead of pleading insanity as his get-out-of-jail-free card, as is the “normal” murderer’s strategy, Arne swears that it was not him that committed the murder, instead proclaiming that it was a Demon (“the Devil”) acting through him to commit the horrendous act. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga respectively) subsequently show up like the Scooby-Doo gang to support Arne’s case as verified supernatural experts (please re-examine the quotation marks around “‘true story'”), unravelling a sinister plot of demonic possession and mayhem to suggest that maybe – just maybe! – Arne was telling the truth after all.
Conceptually, this story is brilliant. It unfolds with a genuine sense of mystery and intrigue that doesn’t quite play into the legal thriller tropes set up (because who doesn’t want to see Annabelle take the stand?) but instead plays like a serial killer mystery and feels decidedly more ambitious than its relatively contained predecessors (taking place on a more national scale as opposed to dingy little homes and creepy churches) yet is arguably more grounded and compelling, with the antagonist’s root in the human world making them far more threatening, at first, than Anne ever was. Granted, there is an inherent moral ambiguity in framing a real-life murder case as an allegedly genuine supernatural mystery, and the fact that they seem to legitimately lean into the “true story” aspect by the end title cards is quite disconcerting: just imagine, hypothetically, if a film was made defending Ted Bundy as though he were demonically possessed — the scope of crime is not the same, but the same general principles apply and, consequently, there is no universe in which The Bundy Made Me Do It gets released, which throws the fundamental ethics of The Devil Made Me Do It into turmoil, though perhaps the Devil made them do that, as well?
All throughout, however, the Warrens remain front-and-centre, giving Wilson and Farmiga full reign to flex their chemistry and continue developing their since-infamous horror heroes. The emotional journeys remain rooted in the Warren’s own troubles, both physical and psychological, and as such The Devil Made Me Do It does feel oddly human despite its inherently spooky nature. There is, in fact, only one visibly supernatural presence in the film (outright rationing when compared to Caspar’s house-party in the preceding Conjurverse flicks) and, frankly, its the most accidentally comedic scare of them all: a dripping wet mound of flesh more akin to Slimer than anything else, and with the sole purpose to stare ominously before frantically waddling at our heroes with recklessly funny abandon. Chaves’ direction of the horror, overall, is largely insufficient, echoing his pre-existing weaknesses with The Curse of La Llorona by doubling-down on the unintended silliness but the opening scene, bar none, is legitimately unnerving and frightening, in a way the climactic finale of its own Conjuring film. Numerous body parts are uncomfortably contorted, creepy hands are loomed shadily over shower rails and Chaves, shamelessly, homages The Exorcist with his introduction of the priest – there are, realistically, few greater horror films than Friedkin’s masterwork to emulate, and The Devil Made Me Do It, its roots firmly in the demonic possession genre, very impressively reflects that during the killer opener.
Alternatively, the film’s climax takes its roots, for spoiler-y reasons best left unknown, from a more contemporary horror film: James Wan (the producer and story-writer)’s own Insidious Chapter Two, which is one or two (hundred) rungs down the ladder from The Exorcist and consequently makes the subsequent finale – which is, in hindsight, less an emulation, more a direct copy from Insidious Chapter Two‘s own climax – regrettably forgettable. The approach to horror, overall, seems to get increasingly uninspired and lazy as the film progresses, with not a single memorable sequence after the opening, nor ever one even half as chilling. This decline in quality is matched only by the similarly muddled narrative resolution, one which proposes a weakly predictable quasi-twist to compensate for its outright abandon of intrigue and mystery, particularly where the antagonist is concerned. It’s undoubtedly the most contemplative of Conjurverse films and, ergo, the least “horrifically” aggressive – the classically thrilling energy of the opener is near instantly lost as the pace drops to pad the run-time, and it never recovers. And then by the time it eventually does rekindle this fire in the climax there are not enough jump-scares in the world, whether they be via claps, dolls, nuns or Slimer, that can fully jumpstart it to the level it once was.