Director: Michael Chaves
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, James Wan, Chad Hayes, Carey W Hayes
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga
It’s been five years since we last cast our eyes on the marriage equivalent of Ghost Hunters. A dynamic husband and wife duo that sparked paranormal intrigue over forty years ago; with seances, exorcisms, grisly murders and an impressive demonic collection being just a few of the standouts on their highlights reel. More recently, they’ve lit up the box office and imaginations of horror fans across the world, at least in their cinematic form that is. Not even a pandemic could stop the brilliant duo of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson from wooing me out to theatres to see their next escapade.
You see, The Conjuring ‘universe’ has always been about those two for me. I’ve never really fancied the painful attempts at spin-offs, clearly orchestrated out of studio greed, rather than any actual world building purpose. There’s just something about the premise of a possessed doll and a resilient, demon nun that lacks. They never really scratched the itch like the first two wonderful movies managed to and with an abundance too. Perhaps it was the Wan factor, who knows? The spin-offs felt a paranormal step too far for me, they weren’t grounded in the reality of the Warrens investigative career, which is precisely why this movies release excited me so much.
A return to the old faithful, with one key difference, the director had changed. The genius that is James Wans stepped aside, having effectively become Warner Bros. Kevin Feige over the last decade. Now I’ve procrastinated over the pitfalls of a director change at any point in a franchises shelf life, they need to be handled very carefully or you face disaster akin to Disney’s Star Wars efforts. And let’s be honest, Michael Chaves was a big risk. This is a man with ten directorial outings, and only one a proper feature length horror, which didn’t exactly fair well with the critics. He had huge shoes to fill and that director transition was absolutely key to this movies success or failure for me.
A fresh mind to an established world can be a hindrance or a godsend, and for me at least, it was much closer to the latter. No one will ever know how good, bad or creatively different a third James Wan Conjuring movie could have been. But if we’re being honest, the claustrophobic, haunted house format was begging for change, at least in this Warren focused section of the universe. And Chaves certainly opted for that change with the Arne Johnson case adapted for the ‘Devil Made Me Do It’. His story, the murder of his landlord in 1981 and his plea of demonic possession is notorious for a number of reasons, and the human stakes within provided Chaves with the perfect opportunity to switch things up from ghostly shadows in the corner.
That’s not to say that we don’t have any ghostly apparitions in the third instalment of this very ghostly franchise. Chaves constructs quite a few good scares, scattered sporadically throughout the movie, and although for me, they don’t quite reach the heights of the first two, they’re still a level above other iterations within the shared universe. The exorcism opening is undoubtedly uncomfortable viewing, with hideous cracks and bodily contortions opening the movie with a bang. Other times he utilises first person camera shots or disorientating imagery to unsettle the audience, before ultimately utilising several jump scares, that fans of the franchise will have become familiar with.
Now I’m not a person who’s easily affected by the more obvious jump scare scenes, but even I’ve got to admit that the water bed moment with the kid was creepy as hell, tapping into that primal fear within most human beings. Another moment that had an unsettling effect, without necessarily scaring the crap out of me was the figure at the window, just as Arne’s world gets ready to take a turn for the worse. There’s several other little well worked peripheral glances and brilliantly constructed scares that make this an uncomfortable, but enjoyable theatre going experience for the well initiated or newbie horror fan alike.
The story itself was a gripping watch, primarily because I’m a massive fan of the franchise and have a bond with these two characters that has transcended the better part of a decade. Chaves intelligently taps into that affinity with Lorraine and Ed, giving the latter an extra layer of foreboding via a heart attack at the very beginning. This means the audience are acutely aware of his potentially impending danger, every single time he gets above a brisk walk, and believe me, he does so much more than that, just trying to protect his love of thirty years. Did I mention there’s a reanimated, grotesquely fat, towering corpse moment in a morgue? Yeah, that happened and poor Ed had to contend with it. Twice. Albeit the second might have been in his head.
So all in all, the story worked for me. Primarily you have the curse/possession arc going on, a lot of the time, a foreboding undercurrent as Arne tries his best not to succumb to death in prison, then we have the ongoing attempted clearing of his name, or at least trying to prove there was circumstantial reasons for the twenty one stab wounds he inflicted on his landlord. The Warrens become a mix of Colombo and Fox Mulder at this point, going deeper into a web of satanism, human sacrifice and general death. All the while, very much getting out and about, which makes for a thrilling, open experience, and very different to whats been before. And without repeating myself, that was a very necessary change, not to mention a ballsy one from a relatively new director.
As things come to the boil nicely, heading into the final twenty minutes or so, there’s a lovely three perspective finale that I thoroughly enjoyed. Ed’s racing to a retired priests house, an occult obsessed holy man, incidentally, with an absolute belter of a secret; all the while Lorraine races around underground tunnels, being pursued by a mad, gaunt, and rather terrifying looking satanist; and finally poor Arne does his best Jesus Christ superstar impression, levitation and all, back in the prison. In my experience, this movie is never boring, rarely takes a breath and like a world class distance runner, actually speeds up towards the finish line. If I’m being pedantic, there’s a couple of grievances regarding hypnotic dust and a broken altar ending everything, but suspension of disbelief folks.
It’s under two hours long, it’s horror and it’s the Warrens, what more can I say? If you are fan if the first two, you probably won’t be disappointed with this one. Is it better than those films? Nope. Was it the perfect movie for me to watch in a theatre after being away for nine months due to a pandemic? Yes, yes it was.