In the 21st century it feels as if there are as many movie universes as there are actual universes, and believe it or not “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is the eighth movie in the Conjuring Horror Movie Universe, which includes the first two “Conjuring” movies and also the “Annabelle” films plus “The Nun” and “The Curse of La Llorona.” Inspired by the real-life (albeit dubious) cases of self-proclaimed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, these movies have made a whole lot of money on a relatively small collective budget, so we can expect the “Conjuring” universe to keep on expanding whether we like it or not.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Michael Chaves and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Rated R (for terror, violence and some disturbing images). Running time: 111 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters and on HBO Max.
Do you need to see the first two “Conjuring” movies to fully grasp the demonic goings-on in “The Devil Made Me Do It”? Nah. It’s essentially a stand-alone film, though it doesn’t really stand so much as it wobbles and careens all over the place before exploding in an overwrought orgy of grotesque images, religious psychobabble and second-rate CGI nonsense.
Set in 1981, “The Devil Made Me Do It” opens with a pre-title sequence that’s a pure homage, a.k.a. ripoff, of “The Exorcist.” Veteran paranormal sleuths Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson in period-piece sideburns and Vera Farmiga sporting the unfortunate hairdo and fashions of the time) are teaming up with an overmatched priest to perform an exorcism on young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), who thrashes about and foams at the mouth and contorts his body in hideous fashion while the demon inside him throws a massive temper tantrum, leading Ed to suffer a heart attack that nearly kills him.
The evil entity eventually exits David and enters Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the boyfriend of David’s sister. Arne is such a good guy he actually invited the demon to possess him in order to save the kid, which is going to make things really awkward if the girlfriend ever wanted to break up with him. I took a demon for your little brother, and now you’re dumping me? Come on man!
Cut to a few months later, and Arne’s not looking too good. He’s pale and sweaty and delusional, and in a moment of crazed madness, he stabs his landlord 22 times. (Police find him on the side of the road, covered in blood, nearly catatonic and mumbling, “I think I hurt someone.”) Ed and Lorraine persuade Arne’s defense attorney to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession; that’s right, the devil made him do it. This is the “true” part of this story. In 1981, the real-life Arne Johnson was put on trial for the murder of his landlord and he invoked the demonic possession defense — and spoiler alert, it didn’t work. Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter.
Not that this movie is really about the trial. We spend only a small amount of time on Arne’s case, instead veering off into Lorraine and Ed’s investigation into a convoluted maze of witchcraft and sorcery that takes them deep into a world where there are all kinds of rules and regulations involving evil spirits, and you really have to know the playbook in order to defeat these otherworldly villains. Occasionally we return to Arne as he thrashes about and suffers in prison, as his loyal girlfriend Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook) stays with him and a lone guard behind a glass partition looks on with indifference. There’s also a sappy subplot about the marriage of the Warrens and how they first met, and numerous scenes where poor Ed nearly passes out from chasing demons, what with him still recovering from that heart attack.
The production design is solid, and we’re hit with a number of by-the-book but effective jump scares, but “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is more silly than scary, despite the earnest efforts of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, two fine actors who might know they’re slumming it but do their best to sell this snake oil.