The year is 1981 and Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, of course!) have just screwed up another exorcism. Only Ed hears as Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) begs the demon that has possessed 8 year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) to enter him instead. Unfortunately, Ed also has a heart attack and passes out before he can tell Lorraine what has happened.
The next month, a hollow-eyed Arne is walking down a road. He’s just murdered his sleazy landlord, stabbing the man 22 times. It seems like an open-and-shut case, except for the fact that Arne claims that he was possessed by a demon and that it was the demon who actually committed the crime. At first Arne’s lawyer is planning to go for an insanity plea but then Ed and Lorraine invite her to come have dinner with them and to see their favorite doll, Annabelle. The film immediately cuts to Arne’s visibly shaken lawyer announcing to the court that her client pleads “not guilty by reason of demonic possession.”
It’s a funny scene and I was a little bit surprised to see it because, in the past, The Conjuring films have always been distinguished by how seriously they took themselves. The first two films both unfolded in atmospheres of growing dread, following families that not only had to deal with societal evolution but also with angry spirits. The first two Conjuring films worked not only as horror films but also as period pieces, as stories about changing times. Though Ed and Lorraine were always the main investigators, the first two films devoted as much time to exploring the dynamics of the haunted families as it did to portraying the Warrens.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (or, as we’ll call it in the interest of space, The Conjuring 3) takes a different approach, which I imagine has much to do with Michael Chaves directing the film instead of James Wan. This time, Arne and the possessed family all remain ciphers. We never learn much about who they are or who they were before they met the Warrens. We don’t know what Arne was like before he became possessed and, as such, it’s hard to get emotionally invested in him once he does end up with a demon inside of him.
Instead, the film emphasizes Ed and Lorraine Warren and their work to uncover the occultist who was behind the original possession. Ed worries about Lorraine as she has psychic visions and wanders around yet another dirty basement. Lorraine worries that Ed is going to give himself another heart attack as he hobbles through the woods in search of an evil spirit. Lorraine proves her powers to a skeptical detective. Ed complains that he doesn’t want people treating his wife’s abilities like a carnival sideshow but he still allows himself a slight smile when she selects the correct murder weapon. Of course, at one point, Suspicious Minds is heard on the radio and we briefly flashback to Patrick Wilson singing the song in The Conjuring 2. Once again, the film argues that Ed and Lorraine’s romance, their endless love, makes them uniquely capable of battling the Devil.
The film has its moments, largely because Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are adorable as Ed and Lorraine. At the same time, though, there’s a definite “greatest hits” feel to the third Conjuring film. There’s little about the film that feels truly spontaneous or surprising and most of the scenes feel like reworkings of scenes that worked in the previous two films. As good as Farmiga and Wilson are in their roles (and as much as I appreciate the idea of a Catholic super hero film franchise), Ed and Lorraine work best when they’re relating to and helping other characters. The Conjuring 3 often solely focuses on them and the end result often feels more like an Insidious sequel than a Conjuring film.
The Conjuring 3 is enjoyable enough. It gets the job done, while never reaching the emotional heights of the first two films. It has enough jump scares to be a fun movie to watch on a rainy night but it’s not one that really sticks in your mind after it ends.