Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
Do you believe in demons?
In Brookfield, Connecticut, in 1981, demonologists' belief in possession was put to the test in the courtroom. Did Arne Cheyenne Johnson murder his landlord because a dark spirit inhabited him? Did the Devil make him do it?
Unlikely heroes Ed and Lorraine Warren return to officiate what amounts to a feature-length exorcism in the latest installment of The Conjuring Universe.
Launched back in 2013 with “The Conjuring,” “The Devil Made Me Do It” is the seventh movie in the series that’s amassed more than $1.8 billion in worldwide box office. It’s the third film to star the Warrens, the infamous paranormal investigation team played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. However, it’s the chemistry between the two leads that elevates this otherwise gruesome ghost story.
When the youngest member of the Glatzel family, David (Julian Hilliard), exhibits signs of demonic possession (you know the ones that involve pea soup projectile vomiting and pretzel-like body contortions), the Warrens are called in to help. So naturally, an exorcism is arranged that requires the assistance of Father Gordon (Steve Coulter). However, when things don’t go as planned, a family friend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), becomes the new host for David’s unwanted demonic visitor.
The Warrens pack up and go home, but Arne stabs his happy-go-lucky landlord to death in an inexplicable bloody murder shortly thereafter. Confounded by the violent act out of character for the kindly Arne, the Glatzels again turn to Ed and Lorraine. Working with Arne’s lawyer, the Warrens set out to prove not only that demons exist but that one demon is responsible for the unspeakable tragedy.
Ed explains to Arne’s skeptical attorney that courts accept the existence of God every day; maybe it’s time for those same courts to give the Devil his due. It’s this creative legal defense that serves as the foundation for another exciting Warren adventure, arguably, the most action-packed of the series.
Producer James Wan (the director who became a household name back in 2004 with the first “Saw” film) enlists “The Curse of la Llorona” director Michael Chaves to deliver all the familiar, spooky beats. This outing demonstrates the team’s ability to eke out a plethora of effective jump scares with mathematical precision. But despite the supernatural goings-on, it’s the relationship between Ed and Lorraine that will hook audiences.
The Warrens make two improbable heroes, and, perhaps, frustratingly to some viewers, Ed is hobbled by a crippling heart attack early in the film. This injury coincides with a sloppy exorcism (are there any other kind), and the script has fun with the “does he have his pills?” recurring dilemma.
Ed’s health condition thrusts Lorraine into the forefront. A medium, who can psychically link to the supernatural world, Lorraine’s unique abilities come in handy but also permit the forces of evil to attach to those around her. And because Ed isn’t fully capable of physically assisting her in battling demons, we get an awkward set of sequences in which Lorraine is placed in harm’s way with Ed constantly playing catchup.
One particular sequence with Ed wildly wielding a sledgehammer might remind viewers of Stephen King’s novel “The Shining.” Not the Kubrick version, but the source material where the possessed Jack Torrance stalks the hallways of the Overlook Hotel armed with a roque mallet (replaced by an ax in the movie).
“The Devil Made Me Do It” may be based on a true story, but the filmmakers have certainly taken liberties with the facts. Sure, the legal defense was put forth in real life, albeit unsuccessfully, by the real Arne, but the Warrens’ heroic efforts to assist him come off as purely a Hollywood creation. Nevertheless, the action/horror elements fit the bill and satisfy audiences while not breaking new ground for the franchise.
Newnan and Coweta residents will instantly recognize the locations. The exteriors and interiors of the historic Coweta County Courthouse feature prominently in several scenes. Local Newnan businesses show up in the background, including part of the Scott’s bookstore sign. The old Newnan Hospital, now serving as a location for many movies, is used throughout.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is in theaters now and available for the next 31 days on the HBO Max streaming platform. While watching it at home is an option, the jump scares should be more impactful in the theatrical format.