Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga bring warmth and heart to tepid satanic tale
The year is 1981 and our favourite demon-fighting duo the Warrens have returned to deal with the possession of young David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). After a brutal cold open in which Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) fight to exorcise a demon who really doesn’t want to give up its cosy home in the boy the Warrens triumph – but at a tragic cost. Poor Ed has a massive heart attack in front of Lorraine’s eyes and the demon possesses Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruari O’Connor). A possessed Arne returns to his girlfriend Debbie Glatzel (Sarah Catherine Hook) at the boarding kennels where she lives and works. After the demon gets a bit stabby with Debbie’s landlord Arne finds himself facing the death penalty. The Warrens get called in to save the day but their investigations reveal that this may be the work of Satanists.
And it all gets increasingly silly from there. I’ve never quite understood why some horror franchises capture the public imagination while others barely make a splash. The Conjuring series is a prime example. The first film frankly isn’t all that good. After a killer cold open which introduced the demon doll Annabelle (who went on to have 3 spin-off films of her own – none of which use her as effectively as the first 10 minutes of The Conjuring), the film becomes a mildly scary hash of The Exorcist. The second film, based on the Enfield haunting, is by far the strongest of the bunch, and not just because it features Patrick Wilson in delightful knitwear doing an Elvis impression and singing Can’t Help Falling in Love. The second film is deeply unsettling in places (the Crooked Man is the stuff of nightmares) and features a terrifying antagonist in The Nun (who also got her own underwhelming spin-off movie). This third film in the franchise feels like a step backwards. It relies too heavily on what didn’t work all that well with the first one – namely cheap jump scares and slightly tedious demonic possession scenes with an added dose of early 80’s Satanic Panic thrown in for good measure. One early sequence rips off the famous arrival scene of the priest in The Exorcist and I may have groaned out loud in the cinema
The franchise’s key strength is the chemistry between Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and it hasn’t dimmed with time. Whatever you may have thought of the real-life Warrens this series lives or dies on your belief in this couple’s love for each other. And in Wilson and Farmiga’s hands, you never doubt that connection. Nothing makes my cold, dead, heart beat faster than seeing Wilson gaze at Farmiga with utter love, faith and adoration. The film relies very heavily on them both to bring heart and soul to a tale that doesn’t really deserve it and they come up trumps. They give vanity-free performances too. Both look cheerfully middle-aged here ( the 47-year-old duo have been aged up to reflect the Warrens who were both mid 50’s at the time of the trial). Farmiga is all fussy frills, ageing bouffant hair and sensible skirts. Wilson spends the whole movie looking peak, middle-aged, soft dad in his knitwear although this time he gets a walking stick for good measure as he can barely stand upright (what with the whole near-fatal heart attack). A sequence in which an ailing Ed tries to gallantly offer to go crawling around under a house on the grounds that Lorraine will “ruin her dress” while she fondly rolls her eyes is delightful. Frankly, you can keep the jump scares – I’m on board for watching Wilson sporting an array of charming knitwear while the Warrens investigate mild supernatural happenings (would make a great TV series).
The satanist plotline is so silly and entirely without tension that it’s not worth dwelling on but it’s always nice to see John Noble on screen. I’m not convinced of the ethics of taking the real-life murder of Alan Bono and dramatising elements of it in this way but Ruari O’Connor is very good in the slightly thankless role of Arne and Sarah Catherine Hook is a charming screen presence as Debbie.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is like a ghost train in film form. It’s fun, silly, mildly frightening, you have a great time while you’re on it and immediately forget it the second you leave. If you’re looking for some fun, gentle horror there are worst ways to spend a couple of hours and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Wilsons are deeply charming.