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All hell breaks loose early and often in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” A creepy old Connecticut house shudders in the grip of demonic forces that shred the wallpaper (an improvement, honestly) and tear at the body and soul of an 11-year-old boy, triggering acrobatic contortions so violent they make Linda Blair’s head spins look like hot yoga. If “The Exorcist” seems by now too obvious a point of reference, it’s one this movie nonetheless invokes, first when an old priest arrives on this misty night and later when a heroic young man dares the devil to abandon the poor boy and take him instead.
The devil gladly complies, vacating the body of young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) and seizing hold of his older sister’s boyfriend, Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). But Arne, rather than hurling himself to his death, lives on, now hosting a demonic parasite that takes its not-so-sweet time making itself known. Jump scares galore ensue, blowing your eardrums and filling the screen with jack-in-the-box apparitions and hallucinatory washes of red. By the time Arne is arrested for the brutal murder of his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins), the movie has already laid out its case, aptly summed up by the title.
Proving it in a court of law will be a trickier matter, one that naturally falls to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), that God-fearing, ghost-busting duo who have given these movies their romantic pulse and spiritual oomph. In this latest movie, directed by Michael Chaves from a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, they set out to prove that Arne is not guilty by reason of demonic possession — a tricky task that will bring them into contact with all manner of fellow true believers and professional skeptics. (The fine ensemble cast includes Keith Arthur Bolden, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Eugenie Bondurant and especially John Noble as a delectably strange priest turned paranormal expert.)
Like its superior predecessors, “The Conjuring” (2013) and “The Conjuring 2” (2016), “The Devil Made Me Do It” was ripped from one of the Warrens’ real-life case files, this one centered on a 1981 murder trial that they successfully — and none too scrupulously — turned into a cause célèbre. Whether you regard the Warrens as righteous spiritual warriors, wily hucksters or both, their self-promotional acumen has never been in doubt, as the mere existence of these movies amply demonstrates. (Ed Warren died in 2006; Lorraine Warren, who served as a consultant on the series, died in 2019.)
As a rule, the words “based on a true story” should trigger any viewer’s skepticism; that’s even more the case when a movie is as straight-faced in its presentation of supernatural events as these are. Not that you had to believe a second of the first two “Conjuring” movies — both directed with pulse-quickening intensity by James Wan (who’s credited as a producer here) — to find them wildly entertaining, especially since stories about possessions and hauntings are predicated on a shivery suspension of disbelief to begin with. If the illusion is slower to take hold in “The Devil Made Me Do It,” it’s because of the heightened moral stakes — the question of a man’s guilt or innocence in the matter of a monstrous crime — as well as the movie’s more workmanlike approach to shocks and scares.
Chaves made his feature debut with “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019), one of several feature-length offshoots, like “The Nun” and the “Annabelle” movies, in the increasingly tangled “Conjuring” franchise. (I think we’re supposed to call it a universe, but some directives, like the devil himself, should be resisted.) Chaves is a solid craftsman with a weakness for easy jolts, but also a gift for filling the frame with strategically unnerving pools of light and shadow; he can turn even a daylit room into something ominous and suggestive. He also orchestrates a memorable flashback to young David’s first encounter with evil, a scene that will make you grateful that waterbeds went the way of the dodo.
What Chaves doesn’t demonstrate so far is anything approaching the kinetic virtuosity of Wan’s filmmaking, his ability to send the camera skittering up and down hallways and stranding us alongside the characters in a labyrinthine fun house of horrors. To some degree that’s the right approach for this particular story, where the real antagonist isn’t a haunted house but rather a curse of mysterious and exceedingly malicious provenance. Ed and Lorraine have admittedly broken a lot of curses over the years, amassing a storehouse of creepy dolls and tchotchkes in the process (as referenced in one of the movie’s slyer punchlines). But nothing they’ve done has quite prepared them for this case’s swerve into satanic cult worship, blood sacrifice and other forms of occult deviance, all of which operate by their own outlandishly sinister rules.
It’s in the parsing of those rules that “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” hits the occasional sweet spot, if less consistently or surprisingly than its predecessors did. Narratively speaking, the most pleasurable aspect of these films is the way they function as paranormal detective stories, knottily intricate puzzles in which the battle for the human soul also becomes a battle of wits. That’s another reason why the Warrens — at least as played by Farmiga and Wilson, making the most as always of their retro-nerdy-sexy chemistry — are such an endearing detective duo: They’re Nick and Nora with less banter and more holy water.
It helps, of course, that the Warrens come off as committed (some might say committable) do-gooders and that you never catch them, say, eagerly negotiating book and movie deals mid-trial, as their real-life counterparts are said to have done. That’s not the only time “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do it” stacks your sympathies in favor of Ed and Lorraine, never more risibly than with sepia-toned flashbacks to their original meet-cute — the beginnings of a love story to make audiences swoon and demons shudder. Here, and not for the first or last time, the power of kitsch compels you.
‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’
Rated: R, for terror, violence and some disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Starts June 4 in general release and on HBO Max