The Warrens investigate a murder that may be linked to a demonic possession.
From the mid 1930’s through the 1940’s, William Powell and Myrna Loy became fixtures on the nation’s movie screens as Nick and Nora Charles, the boozy and oh-so-charming husband-and-wife sleuthing team in “The Thin Man” movies. Someone would get killed, many martinis would be drunk, much flirting would ensue, their dog Asta would pop up for a bit of canine cuteness and the crime would be solved just in time for evening cocktails. Formula movies, they remained enduring because of Powell and Loy’s chemistry. Seeing them on the screen was like a visit from old friends and it was good to check in on what they were up to from time to time.
In a way, “The Conjuring” films offer something similar. As Ed and Lorraine Warren, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are becoming the Nick and Nora Charles of the 21st century, appearing on screen every few years to solve some supernatural mystery. The latest entry in the franchise, “The Devil Made Me Do It,” is one of the best, a loosely based-on-fact movie that follows the case of one Arne Johnson, a young man accused of murder, claiming he was possessed by the devil while doing so.
It’s a Hail Mary defense, but after sitting through the film’s effective prologue, we understand why it’s made. A heavily stylized, unnerving exorcism starts things with a bang, the Warrens having been called in to help eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) who’s possessed by a demon. Something goes awry and before you know it, the evil spirit jumps into Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), who happens to be dating the young victim’s sister. The threat seems to have been quashed, that is until a couple months later when Arne brutally stabs his landlord to death and is put on trial.
What ensues is an intriguing mystery in which the Warrens attempt to track down the source of the demon to see how it is connected to the Glatzels. Before all is said and done, they cross paths with an avowed Satanist, become involved in the case of two missing teenage girls and realize they’re getting a bit too old for this kind of business.
“The Conjuring” films are built around two things – elaborate set pieces and the Warrens’ relationship – both mined for maximum effect here. Taking the reins from James Wan, director Michael Chaves pulls out all the stops whenever supernatural shenanigans are called for. As effective as the opening exorcism scene is, one that ends the movie tops it, the filmmaker employing in-camera effects, rapid movement, a soundtrack cranked to 11 and atmospheric lighting to create an unnerving, cathartic climax. He unnerves us throughout, whether it’s during a chilling moment in a haunted woods where Lorraine reenacts a grisly murder or in a morgue where they commune with the dead. Chaves sets the bar high in every scene and tops it in the next, creating a sense of thrill-producing momentum that pays off handsomely.
And while Wilson and Farmiga aren’t throwing witty bon mots at each other, they contribute something far more valuable to the franchise. There’s such a genuine quality to their performances, as they sincerely espouse their characters’ faith in God and love for one another, that it’s become the emotional foundation of the franchise. Demons, ghosts and cursed objects may come and go, but the Warrens remain steadfast in their beliefs and one another. This is what makes us return to “The Conjuring” films, the need to be reminded that something remains unshakeable in a world gone mad.
3 1/2 Stars