By Lynn Venhaus
As in all “The Conjuring” movies, this sinister tale is based on a true story, which raises the chills.
But unlike the first two that involved haunted houses, this focus is on how a mild-mannered 19-year-old could viciously stab his neighbor/landlord to death in a small New England town without direction from the dark side?
Real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) investigate a murder that may be linked to demonic possession. The 1981 case is the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense. It made national headlines as “The Devil Made Me Do It” trial, and the Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) case was one of the most sensational to involve The Warrens.
Oh, there are still creepy houses, with eerie things lurking in shadows, spooky basements/cellars and more delving into the occult – always disturbing. Production Designer Jennifer Spence is effective in building an ominous atmosphere and capturing the early ‘80s look.
Shifting between the real and paranormal worlds, this third film – and eighth overall in “The Conjuring” spin-offs (Annabelle, The Nun), provides the unsettling unease we have come to expect. Demonic possession gives me the heebie-jeebies anyway, and then when you add other supernatural elements, well, the sense of dread is unrelenting.
Only James Wan, responsible for the first two smash hits in 2013 and 2016, is not directing this macabre well-documented film, it is a protégé instead – Michael Chaves, who helmed “The Curse of la Llorona” in 2019, another spin-off film.
Chaves doesn’t veer off the path of a successful formula. Like Wan, he is good at escalating terror, although he spent more time setting up the spine-chilling jolts where you gasp, jump or scream.
Wan, however, is credited with the story, along with screenwriter David Leslie Johnson – McGoldrick. The characters are based on those created by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes. The story does get rather complicated as the Warrens explore what a former priest, Kastner (John Noble), has stored away.
The movie starts out with an exorcism of a demon possessing an 8-year-old boy, David Glatzel (an angelic-faced Julian Hilliard), which is truly frightening and cuts to the chase in swift fashion. His sister’s boyfriend, Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), pleads with the spirit to enter him and leave David alone.
Thus starts the horrific transformation of Arne into a wicked presence, igniting a fight for his soul by “The Occultist,” who summons demons to satisfy the Prince of Darkness. With her severe skeletal build features, Eugenie Bondurant is menacing with just a quick glance.
The story takes on the structure of a crime procedural as the police involve the Warrens in a missing girls’ case in Danvers, Mass., that may be related, and broaden the research about Satanic cults.
Sometimes, it is a little too on the nose, and why people in big rambling old houses insist of not having too many lights on, I’ll never understand. Editors Peter Gvozdas and Christian Wagner set up the scares with flair and composer Joseph Bishara, who scored the first two, is back enhancing the action.
While Wilson and Farmiga excel in portraying this ordinary married couple with extraordinary abilities, some of the acting by lesser supporting characters gets a tad hammy, like the old-timey horror icons in early Hollywood.
Lorraine Warren, who served as a consultant on these films before her death at age 92 in 2019, was a clairvoyant, and her visions are an integral part of cracking these cases.
As the murder suspect, O’Connor is believable as someone caught up in forces beyond his control. Sarah Catherine Hook gives sincere support as his girlfriend Debbie Glatzel and as her brother, Hilliard is a natural as the innocent boy thrust into the supernatural world.
The trial is wrapped up quickly, almost like an afterthought, and there is plenty of archival footage on the case, including this gem – a clip of Tom Snyder of “The Tomorrow Show” interviewing the Warrens. (Stay to see it during the credits).
This third film delivers what it sets out to do and is convincing in its depiction of ghosts and Satanic worshippers. It will just depend on how skeptical you are about demons fighting for our souls.
“The Conjuring” trilogy is the kind of movie best-suited to watch when you’re not alone in the dark.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is a 2021 horror thriller directed by Michael Chaves and starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor and John Noble. Rated R for terror, violence and some disturbing images, the film runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B. The movie is in theatres and steaming on HBOMax starting June 4.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.