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2021-06-17

VERA FARMIGA, PATRICK WILSON as Ed Warren and KEITH ARTHUR BOLDEN in ^THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT, ̄

VERA FARMIGA as Lorraine Warren, PATRICK WILSON as Ed Warren and KEITH ARTHUR BOLDEN as Sgt. Clay in New Line Cinema¨s horror film ^THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT, ̄ a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Ben Rothstein, ? 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (debuting on June 4 in domestic theaters and on HBO Max) highlights what makes this specific horror franchise stand out from the pack. The Conjuring Universe was the first successful post-Avengers fully-functioning cinematic universe. It remains the only one to the mosey along sans at least one commercial misfire (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) or publicized behind-the-scenes kerfuffle (DC Films, nuff said). Second, that it was the first of these to work after The Avengers shouldn¨t be that much of a surprise. Like the MCU, it came from a single well-liked stand-alone genre flick, with James Wan¨s The Conjuring acting as the proverbial Iron Man of the series. And like the MCU, The Conjuring Universe is generally built upon marquee heroes.

In a genre defined by cinematic boogie men (Freddy, Leatherface, Jigsaw, Chucky, etc.), The Conjuring series (specifically the three official Conjuring films and Annabelle Comes Home) is defined by its heroes. It remains a ^monster of the week ̄ franchise starring two deeply sympathetic religious warriors beating back not just vengeful spirits but family discord. Patrick Wilson¨s Ed Warren and Vera Farmiga¨s Lorraine Warren offer an anchor for the potentially conventional/redundant supernatural occurrences. They are relentlessly charming and richly-sketched heroic protagonists who have one of the healthier onscreen marriages this side of The Mummy Returns or The Addams Family. They aren¨t just 1-800-dial-an-exorcism holy warriors, they are funny, snarky, explicitly religious yet non-judgmental and do their best not just to solve the supernatural mystery but to help the endangered family heal.

I bring this up because A) there are several concrete reasons why The Conjuring has spawned a blockbuster horror franchise which is about to become the first R-rated series to top $2 billion worldwide and B) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It essentially lives or dies on audience interest in the Warrens. In what is an understandable change-of-pace for the series, this Michael Chaves-directed installment forgoes the usual ^Warrens investigate a haunted house and save a family from otherworldly menace ̄ structure. Actually, the film¨s dynamite prologue (I love how all three Conjuring films start with curtain raisers worthy of the James Bond series) begins where the previous two Conjuring movies might have ended, with the Warrens frantically attempting to free a young boy from a malicious demon.

The exorcism, completely with a meta-wink nod to The Exorcist, doesn¨t exactly go off without a hitch. Ed suffers a serious heart attack as the demon slips into the body of the older sister¨s boyfriend (Ruairi O’Connor). So when the young man seemingly flips his lid and stabs his landlord to death, the Warrens are at the front of the line arguing that he isn¨t really to blame. The movie is loosely based on the real-life murder trial of one Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who made history for claiming demonic possession as a reason for innocence. For better or worse, the film doesn¨t really focus on the legal tiddlywinks, instead spending its time with the Warrens running around town trying to ^prove ̄ the notion that Arne was indeed possessed.

I suppose the filmmakers didn¨t want to have scenes of folks debating the existence of higher powers, since a key element of this franchise has been an absolute belief in Catholic dogma as conventional wisdom. Instead, we have a more conventional religious chiller, with our heroes convincing folks that Lorraine really is something of a psychic and encountering various eccentric townsfolk who might hold clues to a broader pattern. Keith Arthur Bolden offers solid support as a skeptical but dedicated police sergeant while John Noble does his thing as a local collector of Satanic ^stuff. ̄ Like the Warrens and their perilous basement filled with ^trophies ̄ from past cases, Kastner believes that keeping this stuff locked away is safer than trying to destroy it and risk unleashing the demons within.

Yes, the film eventually flirts with ^problematic ̄ material concerning the 1980¨s ^Satanic Panic, ̄ just as the first film indirectly argued that the Salem Witch trials weren¨t entirely off-base. However, The Devil Made Me Do It avoids becoming the kind of cultural screed that would make Joe Berlinger take up arms. Moreover, it presents its heroes as empathetic and reasonable souls who believed in the perils of Satanism but would have defended innocent women getting torched in the 1690¨s and likely would have called bullshit on the McMartin insanity early on. That may be an overly generous reading of these fictionalized versions of real-life people, but I will remind you that these films are not documentaries and anyone using them for a school project has only themselves to blame.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is both a left-turn for the Conjuring series and a more conventional religious horror movie. I did miss the ^Exorcist meets Touched By An Angel ̄ melodrama of its predecessors (even Annabelle Comes Home centered the Warrens for its surprisingly moving epilogue), and the lack of courtroom/legal eagle drama means we spend much of the film solving a mystery that may be of little relevance to the matter at hand. Nonetheless, the film is a polished and IMAX-worthy horror movie, still dedicated to authentic 1970¨s detail, slow-burn scares and rooted in two highly charismatic marquee heroes. Seven films in (eight if you count The Curse of La Llorona),The Conjuring remains a unique cinematic concoction and the Warrrens remain viable as genre-hopping heroes.

It¨s R-rated without being gore-drenched, openly religious without being reveling in persecution myths, and part of a shared universe even as each film remains a stand-alone entertainment. The Conjuring spin-offs (the Annabelle movies and The Nun) tell fictional stories that can up the violence beyond the limits of ^based on a true story, ̄ while the Conjuring movies (including the carnage-free Annabelle Comes Home) offer muted ^non-fiction ̄ horror but top-flight scares amid two old-school franchise heroes who have earned our rooting interest. There¨s a reason why Walter Hamada was brought in to ^fix ̄ DC Films after the SnyderVerse melodrama. Like Twilight after Harry Potter and like Hunger Games after Twilight, The Conjuring Universe triumphed in the shadow of The Avengers by not explicitly copying Marvel and by remembering that character mattered more than connectivity.