The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It review: possessed innocent?

MaryAnn’s quick take: As credulous — or con-artist cheaty — as its demon-hunter protagonists, but lacking their charm. Worse, it can’t even be bothered to justify and satisfy the procedural approach to its mystery.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga
I’m “biast” (con): mostly not a fan of studio horror movies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Did you know that there was a court case — a murder trial! — in the US in the 1980s in which the defense attorney actually argued that the devil made the defendant do it? That the young man accused of murdering his landlord was not guilty by reason of *checks notes* demonic possession? Isn’t that extraordinary? Wouldn’t it be something to see that depicted onscreen? How would such an argument be mounted, and how would it hold up in the courtroom?

This really happened, and it is the story that The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It wants to tell. Except, bizarrely, this clumsy movie avoids the courtroom almost entirely. Perhaps because, in real life, the judge laughed that argument out of court, wouldn’t allow it at all. A good script could have found a way to deal with that, a way to twist it, maybe, into something about all these fools who cannot appreciate that the world has more things in it than are dreamt in our philosophy, etc and so on.

The Conjuring The Devil Made Me Do It
In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the demon hunters, who give cover to the offenders. These are their stories….

Alas, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s script is not good. (He also wrote — I use the word loosely — Aquaman, The Conjuring 2, and Orphan.) He avoids pragmatic reality, the kind in which someone authentically tried to make a rational case for the supernatural, in favor of elevating con-artist demon hunters and ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren to wannabe mythic status. Yet again, when it comes to these Conjuring movies.

This was almost forgivable in the first movie, thanks to the warm performances and palpable chemistry of Patrick Wilson (The Assistant, The Commuter) and Vera Farmiga (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Front Runner) as the couple, which at least imparted a slight benefit-of-the-doubt to them: maybe they were awful people, or maybe they had merely set up a cosy house in a shared delusion. The second Conjuring film sidelined Wilson and Farmiga’s characters, for some unfathomable reason, and instead gave us very rote, very clichéd spook-house nonsense. This one, the third outing in the series and — Yahweh and Satan help us, probably not the last — puts them center stage again, but not to any ameliorating effect, and to greatly diminished returns.

The Conjuring The Devil Made Me Do It
Haunted waterbed! (It was the early 80s, after all.)

I mean, they’re still great, Wilson and Farmiga as the Warrens: he charmingly holds her purse while she investigates a thing in one scene; she’s lovingly solicitous of his health, which has faltered thanks to a heart attack (demon-induced, doncha know); they portray so handsome and devoted a couple that a case could be made for the immorality of depicting horrible people in a positive way onscreen.

Another way to look at it, though: The Warrens are wholly, preposterously credulous. When 20something Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) murders Bruno (Ronnie Gene Blevins: The Perfect Guy, Seven Psychopaths) by stabbing him viciously and repeatedly, then claims that he can’t remember any of it, it is the Warrens themselves who suggest that perhaps a demon inside him is instead responsible. You see, the Warrens had recently *ahem* “exorcised” David (Julian Hilliard: Color Out of Space) — the little brother of Arne’s girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel (Sarah Catherine Hook) — a trial during which Arne invited the demon to leave David’s body and take over his own. (That sounds like a reasonable way to soothe a disturbed child with whom one enjoys a warm friendship, as we see that Arne does with David.) Ed witnessed this “invitation.” But no one, certainly not the Warrens, broach a far more likely explanation for Arne’s homicidal predicament: that Arne got the idea to blame a demon for his crime — may have even gotten the idea to commit the crime itself, with this built-in paranormal “alibi” — from the Warrens and their gullibility and/or con artistry. If the Warrens can get away with this nonsense, maybe Arne could as well, and even rope them into his defense…

Not that The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t just as ridiculously credulous as the Warrens, but the movie itself completely lacks their confidence and mom-and-pop charm. Of course, the truth of the supernatural, especially of the evil sort, is always offered as a given in movies about hauntings and possessions and the like. But Devil goes way beyond the usual, dangling the promise of proving demons are real and then snatching that back. It’s much more difficult to suspend our disbelief when, for instance, we have a scene in which the Warrens invite Arne’s skeptical lawyer (Ashley LeConte Campbell: One Night in Miami…, Get Out) round their place for dinner, so they can demonstrate to her just how real demons are. She readily agrees… but the film skips right over that demonstration to the lawyer, ashen-faced and presumably totally convinced, announcing to the court her intention to put forth that “devil made me do it” defense. “We don’t know what scared her so bad!” the movie admits. “Bet it was something really scary, huh?”

The Conjuring The Devil Made Me Do It
I presume the Devil made director Michael Chaves go hard on The Exorcist visual references, too…

Oh, and the movie skips right over the judge putting the kibosh that defense, so we never do get to see a legal argument for demonic possession. (The 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose does do something of the sort, however). And still the film ends up implying that the ultimate verdict that Arne Johnson faced did, in fact, hinge on such an argument.

This is far from the only place where the film cheats, or simply can’t be bothered to tell even the story it wants to tell. After much harping by the Warrens on the necessity of finding who is responsible for the initial targeting of the Glatzel family — for they were, apparently, deliberately cursed by someone, for some unknown reason — this is completely forgotten. It’s all random, I guess, because “satanists” are into “chaos”? That may be… but it’s another tale entirely, not the procedural on offer here.

Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, there’s this, which I suspect the movie thinks is the occult rabbit it’s pulling out of its rational hat. “The court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth,” Ed Warren announces, and the movie loves this so much it’s in the trailer. “I think it’s about time it accepted the existence of the Devil.” Now, Ed’s not wrong here, in that reality has painted itself into a corner. But he misses the obvious other implication of this: that the court is wrong to accept the existence of God. It requires a lot more than rhetoric to prove the existence of demons, and The Devil Made Me Do It is far from up to the task.

see also:
The Conjuring review: they make me believe
The Conjuring 2 movie review: haunting only in its disjointed bulkiness

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Sat, Jun 05, 2021 5:07pm

My wife streamed this one for their horror group. All horror fans, obviously, but they said the only enjoyment was from doing a running MST style commentary.

Mon, Jun 07, 2021 2:19pm

For me anything celebrating the Warrens is on a par with celebrating a serial fraudster: vile people who prey on the weak and confused. And exorcism in the real world is often dangerous, occasionally fatal, and always used as a tool of control by the strong against the weak (disproportionately women and children). I rather lose my sense of humour about it.

That said, there could be a good film to be made from the basic story: OK, we accept that the perpetrator might have got the idea from the exorcism he “helped” at, now how do we distinguish that from actual demonic influence without offending the religious people’s sensibilities by just taking the “none of this is real” option?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Jun 07, 2021 6:53pm

For me anything celebrating the Warrens is on a par with celebrating a serial fraudster

I think there’s room to appreciate Wilson and Farmiga’s performances and the depiction here without celebrating the real Warrens, though I concede that many, many people will not make that distinction between the fictionalized versions and the real people.

there could be a good film to be made from the basic story

Yup. This ain’t it.

Mon, Jun 07, 2021 4:26pm

I cant stand the “based on a true story” BS with this. NO, its NOT.

And if I ever have to swear an oath in court it sure as heck isn’t going to be on the nasty bible. Maybe a Carl Sagan book or something.

Mon, Jun 07, 2021 4:28pm

“The court accepts the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth. I think it’s about time it accepted the existence of _____________.”

A) Hugh, the invisible manatee nemesis who arrived from a another dimension and murdered the victim
B) Aphrodite, who transformed into a sexy duck and inflamed my client with an insatiable murderous lust
C) The Curse of El Gigante Rojo, a sentient infernal burrito so massive that even God cannot unwrap it
D) Vual the demonic camel, who corrupted my client with visions of a future that never was or could be
E) All of the above and anything else you or anyone else could possibly imagine

Well, well, looks like I just won every case in history. See Dad, I told you law school was a waste of time!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Mon, Jun 07, 2021 6:54pm

Well, to be “fair,” God and Satan are at least both characters in the same story that our cultural has decided to treat as factual.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jun 08, 2021 11:25pm

Ah, then D) is the only correct answer, as Vual, a Duke of Hell commanding 30 legions, is one of the 72 demons listed in the Ars Goetia, the first book of the Lesser Key of Solomon, and although this demonological grimoire is considered heretical, Vual would nevertheless be the only deity above who technically belongs to the Christian faith.

(The above comment sounds best when read in Ray Stantz’ voice)