By Caelyn O’Reilly
The “Conjuring” franchise has been a consistent player in multiplexes worldwide since the first film’s debut back in 2013, and the series has remained in the top five grossing horror films every year that one has released since. Only two years have gone by since then without a new entry in cinemas, 2015 and 2020 (the latter for obvious reasons). To put it simply, this series has some legs. The original film was widely praised as an entertaining horror throwback. But its reception by critics and audiences would quickly get muddled as “The Conjuring” became “The Conjuring Universe”. The first entry in spin-off series “Annabelle” (a sub-series that would reach a third film before “The Conjuring” would) was broadly panned. This back-and-forth reception would continue as further spin-offs made up the vast majority of the series’ output. But despite its continued presence, “The Conjuring” series doesn’t seem to get brought up often in discussions of the swathes of excellent horror films that have come out in the last decade. It seems to get somewhat dismissed as popcorn entertainment in opposition to the more important “elevated horror” that gets the real accolades. But I will argue that the series continually succeeds in delivering a kind of horror very seldom praised and that few others are attempting in recent years. I will also argue that, unfortunately, the latest entry “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (2021), forgets this.
So what *is* great about this series? Basically, at their best, these films are extremely well-made carnival ghost trains; a series of creatively built-up and visually distinct scares that build to an exhilarating climax, but where you ultimately emerge safe into the daylight on the other side. This might seem at first like damning with faint praise. The kind of backhanded compliment to a movie that is fun but not “important” or “intelligent” that permeates terms like “popcorn flick” and “turn your brain off entertainment”. But I mean this wholeheartedly. The theme park comparison is apt, because I believe a good ride – a good rollercoaster – can be as powerful and memorable an experience as any film. For a filmic analogy, look at “John Wick”. You can point out allusions to Greek mythology all you like, those films are beloved because they’re thrill rides where Keanu Reeves kills a lot of people in really cool ways. The “Conjuring” films scratch a similar itch for me. But while “John Wick” makes me bounce in my seat and stare slack-jawed at the screen, films in that universe make me giggle and hide behind whatever plushie I’ve brought with me (because I am the kind of person who earnestly describes myself with the word “smol”).
Anywho, this “ghost train” vibe is aided by the tone and approach these films take. They never take themselves too seriously, always making room for the occasional comic relief moment or heartwarming scene to relieve the tension (I always smile at Patrick Wilson singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” in “The Conjuring 2”). They make minimal use of death, rarely having main characters die and usually end happily with the evil defeated. The best films in the series (“The Conjuring 2”(2016), “The Nun”(2018) and “Annabelle Comes Home”(2019)) lean into this the most. This is the point where I should probably acknowledge that my view of what makes this series great is very likely unique. I rarely see those latter two films being praised and, using the admittedly loose measurements of Rotten Tomatoes and Box Office figures, “The Nun” seems to be one of the least liked entries in this universe. But I will make their case regardless.
“The Conjuring 2” is an amplification of the appealing formula set up in the first film, heightened and improved in every way. Especially in the cinematography and narrative momentum, the film just keeps building and building the tension until its climax. “The Nun” is easily the most visually striking film in the series, making the most of its gothic castle setting and its over-the-top score full of Gregorian chanting. Plus it’s just buckets of fun. “Annabelle Comes Home” has a very “Goosebumps”-like premise with child protagonists left home alone to fend off a creative and widely varied cast of spooky critters. This movie does for its whole run time what the overrated “Cabin in the Woods” did only for its fleeting final minutes. All clearly have mountains of love and effort poured into them, delivering fun spooky times that I keep going back to.
So what does “The Conjuring 3” miss that these films nailed?
First is the tone, it takes itself a fair bit more seriously than the films before, doggedly refusing to have much fun at all. A “Conjuring” movie without a focus on fun is like a “Fast and Furious” movie without car porn and soap opera style drama. This is itself caused by the subject matter of the film which is the root of the film’s problems, a real-life murder. This series has always milked the “based on a true story” angle to some extent, with its centering around the real-life paranormal investigators (or con artists, depending on your perspective) Ed and Lorraine Warren. All the main line “Conjuring” films have been based on actual investigations of theirs, this isn’t new. The change comes in the combination of “true story” and “murder”. In the other films it doesn’t really matter if the events are exaggerated – or even completely fabricated – because no one dies. So what if it’s not true? Some people said they were haunted but they weren’t? Sound the liar alarms! It gives the movies the vibe of a campfire story where the teller says it happened to a friend. But in this third film, it being a “true story” matters in a way it hasn’t before. The murder of Alan Bono by Arne Johnson, after which he pled not guilty by way of demonic possession, is the focal point of the film. And the narrative fully leans into this angle, portraying Arne in the most positive, innocent light possible and fully pinning his crime on possession. Going along with the ensuing ridiculous spooks means tacitly accepting that an actual murderer is not in any way responsible for the life he took. His victim (given a new name in this film) is barely present in the narrative and portrayed as a bit of a creep, and the narrative completely forgets about him after is it shifts focus to its bizarre fictional witch curse storyline. The film throws the “true story” in your face and dares you to look further into it, to see what it’s hiding from you. When murder comes into play it’s not a fun ghost train anymore.
It doesn’t help that the narrative justification for the murder is so paper thin. Relying on a room full of people during a chaotic exorcism not noticing Arne grasping the possessed child that is the focus of everyone’s attention and screaming at the top of his lungs for the demon to take him instead. Not only do none of his family notice this, Arne himself apparently forgets about it right away as he endures demonic visions in the time between this and the murder and fails to put two and two together. I’m not one to badger on about narrative contrivances but when that contrivance is a failed attempt to excuse a real man’s murder I think it deserves some attention.
The problem of the murder radiates through the film. The “true story” stops being a little “oh maybe this supernatural stuff could really happen” touch that you believe while you’re watching it and instead becomes an anchor weighing the film down in the harsh reality it is so clearly warping to suit its needs. What made the series great was how fun and exciting it could be, and “The Conjuring 3” just cannot be that because of this focus. As much as it tries with the weird directions it goes in the climax, it cannot escape the impact a real murder brings to it and can only feel distasteful and manipulative in its attempts to bring the film back to the series standard formula.
Oh well, maybe they’ll at least make “The Nun 2” after this.