The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It builds on the series' greatest strength
It's not often you see a blockbuster horror franchise where one of the main appeals is a married couple's incredibly wholesome relationship.
But that has become true of The Conjuring, which debuted its third chapter, the eighth in the wider Conjuring Universe, in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is a step down from the first two films in terms of the scares, likely as a result of horror mastermind James Wan not directing this time, but it's nevertheless a fairly worthy entry. As in the previous movies, what elevates it is the heartwarming love story of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga).
Exploring another case from the Warrens' files, The Devil Made Me Do It kicks off with the horrifying exorcism of an eight-year-old boy, an effective and gnarly cold open. Whatever entity possessed the boy quickly moves into his sister's boyfriend, Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor), who subsequently commits a murder while under its influence. He's arrested and charged for it, but seeing as the Warrens have reason to believe it wasn't really him responsible, they set out to identify the evil behind these events so Arne's lawyer can make a unique case in court: he's not guilty ... by reason of demonic possession.
Rather than simply using Ed and Lorraine Warren as exposition devices that can connect unrelated paranormal stories, the Conjuring trilogy has made their relationship a surprisingly key component. Delightfully sincere romantic scenes between the two are sprinkled throughout the movies, giving an unexpected amount of heart to a franchise about hunting evil demons. Just take a look at The Conjuring 2, a major summer horror movie that still found time for a two-minute sequence devoted to Ed adorably singing "Can't Help Falling in Love" while an enamored Lorraine looks on and smiles. Such moments risk drawing eye-rolls from viewers who expect their horror to be darker and more mean-spirited, but there's no hint of irony to be found in The Conjuring's presentation.
Early on in The Devil Made Me Do It, Ed is hospitalized following a heart attack during the opening exorcism, and Farmiga kills it in scenes where Lorraine is devastated by the incident. Throughout their subsequent adventure, the couple remains utterly supportive of one another, which is a joy to watch in a genre that can at times be quite cynical. In one touching moment, we see the Warrens receive flowers from the family they helped two films ago, emphasizing all the good they've put out into the world.
The Devil Made Me Do It could perhaps use even more of those little moments of love that The Conjuring 2 included, but the film is a bit too busy quickly jumping from one clue-gathering scene to another for Ed to bust out a romantic tune this time. Wilson and Farmiga still have plenty of chemistry together though, and we get a sweet flashback showing for the first time how the Warrens met, which ends up becoming crucial to a climax that derives its impact entirely from their romance as developed over the course of three films. In a different series that hadn't built such a solid foundation, The Devil Made Me Do It's emotional finale could come across as trite. But The Conjuring has put in enough work to earn it.
Where The Devil Made Me Do It isn't as strong is in the scares department. James Wan directed both previous films in the main Conjuring series, and he's a genius at devising inventive scares that rely on clever setups and payoffs, from the iconic hide-and-clap gag in the original to a sequence in The Conjuring 2 that blurred the line between a chilling painting and real life. But The Curse of La Llorona's Michael Chaves takes over directing duties this time, and with the exception of a truly fabulous moment involving a water bed, The Devil Made Me Do It's scares tend to be less creative. There are enough basic jolts to keep horror junkies going, and piecing together the mystery alongside the Warrens makes the movie a compelling watch. But it's hard to imagine any individual set piece will stick with viewers the way many in its predecessors did.
And while the Warrens may have become the trilogy's draw, this chapter might actually spend slightly too much time with them at the expense of Arne's plot line. This part of the movie ends up being somewhat underdeveloped and Arne mainly just waits around for the Warrens to solve the case. The idea of attempting to prove in court that a person isn't guilty because they were possessed is a fantastically intriguing hook that helps shake up the series, but the film doesn't actually get much into the specifics of the court case that might interest viewers.
While not a horror all-timer like its two predecessors, The Devil Made Me Do It comes recommended for fans of the series and especially for those invested in Ed and Lorraine Warren as characters. Or better yet, for fans new and old, it's a perfect time to binge the whole Conjuring trilogy. Rarely have we needed the Warrens' optimism, open-mindedness, and love more.