As Warner Brothers still tries to repair the ungodly mess that is the DC cinematic universe (a scrappy hack job of false starts, recasts, cursed sets and confusing timelines), the studio has strangely found more sustained success and structural consistency with another interlinked set of movies from a genre not traditionally associated with this form of brash expansion. With The Conjuring franchise, Warners has turned a sleeper hit into a series of seven and a half films over eight years, totalling almost $2bn at the global box office, unprecedented for the horror genre and as creaky as the films might have gotten, it’s an impressive and revealing case study on how to turn very little into a lot.
The “real” case files of paranormal investigator couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (viewed as either magical samaritans or publicity-hungry charlatans, depending on who you believe) have inspired two direct dramatisations thus far (one in Rhode Island and one in Enfield) and provided the jump-off for three films about their devious doll Annabelle (the last of which they cropped up in). One of the films also briefly introduced The Nun who then received her own film while one of the characters from Annabelle also crossed over into The Curse of La Llorona. It’s all as absurdly convoluted and ridiculously overstretched as it sounds, yet the films continue to wear a straight face even in their silliest moments, something that can be seen as both admirable and deluded.
It’s this solemnity that wears a bit thin in the otherwise solidly enjoyable new chapter The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do it, a handsomely made return to form for a series that had been showing signs of fatigue. Delving into their questionable case files once again, this time has the Warrens (played again by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) dealing with one of their most heavily publicised battles with evil. In 1981, the Warrens exorcised a demon from a young boy in Connecticut (shown in a ferociously effective cold open) but during the procedure, it transferred into a local youth who then went on to murder his landlord. The subtitle of the film was his legal defence, a first in US court case history, as the Warrens scrambled to find proof that it was an unholy spirit that led to the killing.
Aside from the period setting, what makes the Conjuring films feel like such a throwback is a studio sheen that’s often missing from the many cheaper supernatural horrors that now litter the big and small screen. The rise of Blumhouse and their $5m-budget hits (many of them pitch perfect) has led to an underspend on genre titles and even a leap up to the $20-30m range suddenly makes them feel that much grander, a hark back not only to the 70s but also the 00s when it was perfectly reasonable to splurge on a scary movie (regardless of ultimate quality, the $40m spent on House of Wax or Gothika at least made them feel big). The latest is arguably the grandest to date, directed with real flair by Michael Chaves (who was also behind 2019’s soggy La Llorona), taking over from James Wan who acts as producer and what feels like mentor here, sharing his tips on how best to maximise darkness and space. While there are some jump scares, Chaves, like Wan before him, frequently decides against the easy or obvious option, opting for atmosphere over cheap trickery.
Ruairi O’Connor. Photograph: Warner Bros
Like the Conjurings before it, there’s also a procedural plot (this time it’s more dominant than ever) which helps secure our interest outside of the many funhouse set pieces as the Warrens try to figure out where the demon is being conjured from and by whom. Expanding the haunted house formula of the first two films to include a detective story does make this one a tad more engaging and feel that much less repetitive but adding truffle oil to a Big Mac does not change the fact that it’s still a Big Mac. Chaves, along with the Aquaman writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick is still mostly concerned with witches in caves, demons in waterbeds and zombies in morgues, and so the gravity afforded to parts of the film is often laughable, especially in trying to make us care about the thinly etched marriage between the Warrens, despite the still committed performances from Farmiga and Wilson.
What the film doesn’t detail, while holding the Warrens up as salt of the earth supernatural superheroes, is that during the trial, the pair was promising a book and a lecture tour while their agents were trying to arrange movie rights, before the verdict had even arrived. It doesn’t make them vultures exactly but it does make the heavenly glow accompanying their every move harder to stomach, a little more shading would have gone a long way. The series has always relied on an audience of faith, not just in the truth of what they’re seeing (the words “based on a true story” should be taken with a dump-truckload of salt here once again) but also in Christianity, like many horror films about the fight between good vs evil, it doubles up as both date night rollercoaster ride and unapologetic religious propaganda. It works better here as the former, when it’s not trying to doggedly convince us of its veracity, especially as the story hurtles toward an ending that edges further and further from any charade of the truth.
While I wonder how much is left in the Warrens’ case files for Warners to expand upon (a curse on anyone dumb enough to make another terrible Annabelle instalment), the caveated effectiveness of The Conjuring 3 should be a reminder to studios that treating a horror film like a sumptuously crafted event is something worth indulging in more often. It might not make you believe in the devil but it will make you believe that sometimes he deserves a bigger budget.
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