A man has been possessed. In the heat of a demonic fit, he stabs another man 20 times. Then — nothing. He’s arrested, fit to be charged. And yet, for a guy supposedly possessed, he seems awfully normal. The demon has left him behind entirely. They can do that, didn’t you know? You didn’t? Ed and Lorraine Warren are back, and they’re here to school you.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the latest in this ongoing horror franchise, differs from its predecessors, though at first it appears to be more of the same. An 8-year-old boy, David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), is possessed; the usual hilarity ensues — until. His older sister’s boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) offers himself up in David’s place. The demon … takes him up on it?
Cut to: that gruesome murder. And then: Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), in the office of a bewildered attorney. “Ed and I have proven the existence of the demonic hundreds of times,” Lorraine says, without saying, “Please, lady: watch the prequels.” They’re trying to make the case for Arne’s innocence. The attorney doesn’t bite: The standards of evidence for the law are a little higher than for whatever these wackadoos are up to. Ed chimes. “The court accepts 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.”
Good point! Eventually, the attorney believes them. But The Devil Made Me Do It is all about the burden of proof — which is a little bit of a twist on the usual Conjuring setup. A possession that has to be proven after the fact; a young man who, under threat of the death penalty, will live or die, not as a direct result of being possessed, but rather thanks to a pair of [demonologists?] ability to prove it happened in the first place. Nor is this outing for the franchise quite as much of a haunted house affair, though a large house on a quiet corner looms throughout with unsettling terror. (Is a mortgage a pre-qualifier for demonic possession? Suddenly, I feel very safe.)
This new Conjuring offering — produced, in line with the rest of the series, by James Wan — is, like the other films, based on a real case handled by the Warrens, in which the man’s attorney indeed claimed that accused was possessed by the devil. The movie was directed by Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona) who, in the case of The Devil Made Me Do It, reveals a finer hand with the melodrama of possession — the utter internal chaos of it, the feverish disorientation — than with jump scares. The jumps: not so jumpy. More or less predictable. Often tangential. Sometimes — as in a scene involving a water bed — even perfunctory. But the terror of losing oneself to a demon or, in the case of Lorraine Warren, to a psychic reconstruction of such a possession, is worthy of all the rattles the film inspires. The movie’s expansiveness, broadening to another case, folding Arne’s prison stint into its murky horrors, embracing the sense of police procedure, serves Chaves well. He ably weaves it all together, often with suspense.
Occasionally, the actors prove more chilling, even in plainly expository scenes, than the actual rigmarole of horror movie tricks. I’m thinking in particular of John Noble, who plays a retired man of the cloth and weathered former exorcist, and to the way he responds to the question of: “Why?” It’s the way he says, “The why is irrelevant,” with that final T overly enunciated, drawn out like a hand reaching forward to slap the person asking. For all the fire and brimstone we face throughout the rest of the movie, little of it approaches the weirdo depths of this actor’s voice. When Noble leads our central pair down into a basement for a tour of his occult archive, it more or less immediately seems like a bad, bad idea. Even Isla (Eugenie Bondurant), the Occultist in Chief, can’t compare to spooky basement.
Wilson and Farmiga prove, as always, to be a steady pair, imminently watchable, she with her concerned gaze and backbone of steel, he — hampered, this time around, by an injury on the job — wise, trustworthy, equally concerned. Farmiga has a way of making lines like “I can see things that your people can’t” resonate. She’s the one of this pair who’s got the touch. And, as ever, the franchise is making good on her plausibility. As scream queens go, I would almost say she’s underrated — perhaps because hers is not an arc predicated on victimhood. Her Lorraine Warren is a committed woman, running into the fire, always, rather than away from it. The Devil Made Me Do It is full of fires. The greatest pleasure it has to offer is that of watching her put them out.