That does it. I’ve officially lost faith in The Conjuring Universe.
In 2013, Saw helmer James Wan brought a renewed prestige to haunted house horror by casting critically adored actors Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Lorraine and Ed Warren, a married couple known for battling the paranormal with the power of their Catholic faith. The runaway success of The Conjuring spurred not only a solidly scary sequel (The Conjuring 2), which stayed true to the family-focused haunted house roots, but also branches of spinoffs: The Curse of La Llorona, The Nun, and the Annabelle franchise. To put it mildly, none of these have bested the original for filmmaking or acclaim. And now, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It has arrived to show it’s time to let this tree of terror die at the root.
Set in 1981, this third installment has the Warrens facing down a mysterious demon, who begins by plaguing a bespectacled 8-year-old boy, then moves onto a hardworking, clean-cut young white man. Obviously, that is why Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) fatally stabbed his landlord 22 times. Because it’s impossible to imagine such a nice white man would commit such egregious violence without the devil being involved.
When an exorcism goes sideways, the Warrens feel responsible for Arne’s legal troubles, which could land him a death sentence. So, they find a lawyer, convince her off-camera that supernatural is real, then push the defendant to plead “not guilty for reason of demonic possession.”
Of course, the lawyer initially bristles at the idea of invoking Satan-related testimony in a court of law. But Ed Warren argues with a surly sureness, “The courts recognize the existence of God every time a witness swears to tell the truth. I think it’s about time they accept the existence of the Devil.”
It seems The Conjuring 3 is gearing up for a potentially landmark courtroom battle, which might crackle with the Warrens’ testimony, rich with creepy flashbacks. As they aim to prove to a jury the devil is real, it might have been like a clip show for episodes of paranormal events we never saw before! Nope. Instead, Arne’s trial is used as the loose “based on real events” hook, while the Warrens chase down spooky totems, a malevolent curse, and a mysterious demon. This might sound promising, but I assure you the ultimate villain is deeply disappointing: (sing it with me) IT WAS SATANISTS ALL ALONG!
As the title teases, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It leans hard into the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, but with zero recognization that it was a moral panic that was overwhelmingly made up of hype and lies. Instead, they build a Satanist straw man, who looks like she could be Lorraine’s evil twin. Played by Eugenie Bondurant, this Satanist is a thin, painfully pale white woman with angular features, a prim bun, and a modestly cut but dourly black dress. This bland Big Bad must be hunted down before she leads more nice white Christian men to vicious acts they would never commit on their own. To a very specific audience, this might be deeply scary. Not to me though.
Maybe it’s because I’m a “lapsed” Catholic. The threat of demons no longer rattles my knees; I’ve seen the “good men of faith” that I grew up around outed as abusers again and again. Maybe it’s because I’m aware that the Satanic Panic of the ’80s was a hysteria sparked by false allegations and outrageous memoirs, which were later debunked. Maybe it’s because I turned up for a ghost story and eye-rolled the moment Ed started stumping for more Christian influence in government. Maybe for all of the above, I have no patience for the bad faith argument made by screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and director Michael Chaves.
This franchise was founded by Wan and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes. They’ve handed off the reigns, and The Conjuring has gone off the rails, moving from low-key Conservative vibes (religious heroes, messages of family unity and faith) to a full-on attack on a separation between church and state. In the movie, stern characters declare that Satanists are merciless monsters, who do blood sacrifices and commit horrid rituals to create chaos and pain. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It won’t even give a motive to its evil Satanist. There’s no humanizing her, only literally demonizing her. The Big Bad is a curse-placing hell bitch just because, okay?
In real life, modern Satanists are often activists, who organize to combat religious groups trying to get special treatment under the law. So, yeah the Warrens wouldn’t be fans. (For more on that, check out documentaries like Hail Satan or even I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story.) However, also in real-life, unfounded stories of blood ritual-making, child-abducting Satanists spur conspiracy theories that create dangerous political movements. So, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’s Satanist plot is not just a disappointing horror route to take, it’s one meant to appeal to the fears of a very vocal and fanatical group. As if they need the encouragement.
Of course, horror movies have long had conservative bends. The slashers of the ’80s connected sex and death, reflecting the hysteria over casual sex and the AIDS crisis. The idea the being a “good girl” could help you survive ran deep. This is why it’s supposed to be so frightening that Arne, who is kind to the little possessed boy and dreams of marrying his doll-faced girlfriend and likes dogs, can be turned into a tool of evil. To watch him suffer the consequences of a demon’s actions is to imagine ourselves overtaken by evil unawares. This is the kind of terrifying tendril that conspiracy theorists offer the well-meaning but gullible: just beneath the surface of the banal—say a pizza shop or a waterbed from Wayfair)—evil lurks, and it’s up to us to fight it at every turn! Then, we too could be heroes, like the Warrens.
Politically, I loathe this movie for its pandering and reckless hyping of a moral panic that is alive and all-too-well. As a horror fan, I hate this movie for being so damn dull.
Wan’s skill for scares is rightfully heralded. Chaves doesn’t have his chops. A prolonged exorcism sequence involves violence, a shower of blood, a creepy kid, and some rancid ripoffs of The Excorcist, like the requisite shot of a silhouetted priest and Regan’s creepy contortions pushed into Uncanny Valley by egregious CGI. There will be ghouls, who seem snatched from the Japanese terror tradition of pail, black-veined, long hair, bug-eyes. Creatures will be eerily still, then break into a ramped run. There will be misdirects and jump scares. But not a single thing will be anywhere near as satisfyingly scary as the clapping hands sequence in The Conjuring. All these years later, I still get chills thinking about that one.
In between underwhelming scare setpieces, the Warrens talk. A lot. They talk in lawyer’s chambers. They talk in police stations. They talk in cars and forests and a morgue. A lot of that talk is Ed asking leading questions of Lorraine’s visions as if it’d never occur to her to explain the things she sees to other people. It’s tedious, and despite their undeniable gravitas, Farmiga and Wilson are mired in within it. Whether talking about paranormal threats, Ed and Lorraine’s great love story, or the power of faith, they seem to be going through the motions, as if tromping through a matinee show for a near-empty theater.
The thrill is gone. The fun has died. The point is blunted and yet more dangerous. So, don’t be tempted by The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It opens in theaters and on HBO Max on June 4.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.