From what I remember, my father was a rational, no-nonsense man who rejected unbelievable claims and questioned unsubstantiated speculation. He could spot a sham a mile away and he had no problem walking away from a charlatan. To some degree, his profound skepticism made it difficult for him to connect with organized religion. He kept his spirituality to himself.
When one of my mother’s family members presented me with a coffee table book on the occult for my birthday, my father was not pleased. The Reader’s Digest book “Into the Unknown” was an omnibus edition collecting accounts of UFOs and aliens; clairvoyance, telepathy, and reincarnation; ghosts and poltergeists; Atlantis and ancient earth mysteries; and witchcraft, monsters, possession, and exorcism. The book may as well have been a gateway drug for me, because it sparked an intense interest in ghosts, hauntings and all things weird and wonderful. If you had met me when I was 10 years old and you asked me what careers interested me, the answer would have been “parapsychologist.”
Despite the fact that my father did not approve of all my reading choices, he did not stop me from buying books from the metaphysical section in Haslam’s, our favorite bookstore in St. Petersburg. I picked up titles by Hans Holzer, Frank Edwards, Charles Berlitz, Vincent Gaddis, John Keel, and William R. Corliss. At some point during these years, I must have encountered accounts of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. For instance, both Holzer and the Warrens investigated the most famous haunting of the 1970s: the infamous house purchased by George and Kathy Lutz in 1975 on Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York.
Thanks to reality shows such as “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures,” interest in paranormal research has proliferated in the last 10 years. The popularity of such television series has, in turn, influenced horror films. The Warrens would have likely been largely forgotten had it not been for the 2013 film “The Conjuring,” directed by James Wan. That film launched an American media franchise and shared universe. What followed was a series of supernatural horror films, produced by New Line Cinema, the Safran Company, and Atomic Monster Productions and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Sequel and spin-off films include “Annabelle,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Annabelle 2: Creation,” “The Nun,” “The Curse of La Llorona,” and “Annabelle Comes Home.”
The most recent installment is “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” released June 4 in theaters and simultaneously on the HBO Max service for a period of one month. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return, reprising their roles Ed and Lorraine.
Much of the franchise is built around the supposition that the Warrens were legitimate American paranormal investigators, and that their documentation is valid and authentic. Beginning in the 1990s, the couple faced increasing criticism. Skeptics found flaws in their scientific methodology and accused them of approaching each case with predetermined conclusions. At the very least, it seems that the Warrens’ own beliefs may have influenced their analysis of the evidence they collected and, in many cases, merely served to reinforce a false — or even delusional — narrative.
Some detractors offer much harsher condemnation of the Warrens.
Even though the trailer includes the phrase “the true case that proved the devil is real” to describe the basis of this film, it is best to view “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” strictly as a horror story and not as a cinematic interpretation of real-life events. Yes, the Warrens investigated a purported case of demonic possession involving the Glatzel family of Brookfield, Connecticut. Yes, Arne Cheyenne Johnson was present during an exorcism the Warrens conducted. Yes, a few months later Arne killed his landlord and, yes, during the ensuing trial the defense attempted to prove his innocence based upon his claim of demonic possession. Here’s a real-life spoiler: The presiding judge rejected the strategy. The defense then claimed Arne acted in self-defense. He was found guilty of manslaughter.
Set in 1981, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” drops viewers into the middle of the Glatzel exorcism in its opening scenes. David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), an 8-year-old, is possessed. The boy’s family has brought in the Warrens to document the presence of a demon. Father Gordon (Steve Coulter) has been tapped to facilitate.
The exorcism plays out as a frenzied descent into utter chaos, with director Michael Chaves going out of his way to incorporate every genre cliché he can appropriate. From guttural grunts, flickering lights and flying dinner plates to levitation and the torturous body twisting motif that makes one wonder if hell is full of demonic contortionists intent upon tormenting the lost souls of chiropractors with endless bone-snapping and back-bending realignments.
During that opening scene, the infernal entity relocates — by invitation — from David into Arne (Ruairi O’Connor). The priest is knocked unconscious and Ed has a heart attack.
Thinking everything is hunky-dory, the family resumes its lifestyle while Lorraine lingers at Ed’s hospital bed, waiting for him to recover. Some time later, it becomes evident that Arne has become the conduit through which the demon acts.
The rest of the film blends horror and mystery as the Warrens try to determine who cursed the family and summoned the demon. The story meanders sluggishly, moving from one improbable situation to the next. Obvious anachronisms further erode any illusion of plausibility. Chaves focuses most of his attention on the relationship between Ed and Lorraine, and how their affection provides a form of protection from the evil forces they face. The saccharine flashbacks portraying the earliest days of their romance seem gawky and artificial. It is almost as if the franchise feels a need to go out of its way to make the Warrens appear more sympathetic.
At the same time, the script spends little time and effort illustrating the impact of the ongoing incidents on the Glatzel family. Most supporting characters in the film materialize only long enough to mutter a few lines of dialog before disappearing without establishing any connection to the protagonists or the viewers. The failure lies in the emaciated script that fails to flesh out characters such as Sergeant Clay (Keith Arthur Bolden), a detective who is initially reluctant to help the Warrens; and Father Newman (Vince Pisani), a prison chaplain.
Wilson and Farmiga make the most of their characters, but the film’s two standout performances come from John Noble as Father Kastner, a retired priest from whom the Warrens seek knowledge; and Eugenie Bondurant, an enigmatic occultist. Sadly, neither character gets the screen time they deserve. Bondurant is particularly effective in her role — and I’m not just saying that because she has ties to St. Petersburg.
To date, the films in this franchise have been well received by audiences. “The Devil Made Me Do It” may have strayed too far from expectations — or it may have relied too heavily upon tired genre tropes.
The premise is not necessarily the problem: At its core, the Glatzel exorcism and the trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson had potential. The incident offered the filmmakers a platform to take their fictionalized versions of Ed and Lorraine and insert them into a crime drama. It could have been a clever modern fusion of police procedural and horror genres.
“For everyone involved, this was the darkest story the Warrens were involved in,” said Chaves in the film’s production notes. “What really sets this ‘Conjuring’ apart and makes it so exciting is that you have all of the scares and the terror that you would expect from a ‘Conjuring’ film, but it is set against this incredible mystery that is tied into what the ‘Conjuring’ universe is all about.”
Sadly, the film misses all its marks: The jump-scares are too predictable to be frightening, the characters are too superficial to evoke any empathy, and the threat of infernal malevolence is too contrived to be menacing. Instead of innovating and pushing the boundaries of this franchise, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” feels derivative of every demonic possession film going back to “The Exorcist,” with a subplot constructed from a mix of “X Files” and “Millennium” episodes. Fans of horror and the paranormal may excuse its deficiencies, but not without some amount of frustration over so much squandered potential.