If you’re familiar with James Wan then it will come as no surprise why the quality of this film was in question when word spread he would not be directing this iteration. Simply put, James Wan is a name that carries with it an expectation that what you’re about to see will likely scare your socks off. Wan is a prolific name throughout the horror genre, responsible for creating several major horror franchises in the two past decades; from the Saw franchise, Insidious franchise, and of course, The Conjuring franchise. James Wan has a tendency to build the early foundations of these franchise’s by directing the first one or two films and then moving on toward bigger and better things, often leaving the franchise in the hands of trusted associates or rising horror directors. Wan has opted for director Michael Chaves to helm this third iteration of the core Conjuring films, continuing the journey of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Loraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). This is a decision that initially struck me as bizarre given the greatly unfavourable reception of director Michael Chaves’ recent horror film The Curse of La Llorona (2019) – not to be confused with the critically acclaimed horror released in the same year, La Llorana (2019). But after watching this iteration of The Conjuring, it’s beginning to make sense why Wan has chosen a director like Chaves.
The reason I feel the need to so heavily establish the importance of James Wan here is that his influence on this specific film is very dramatic – perhaps more than ever before. From its tone, narrative direction, and even visual aesthetic; almost every tool that horror directors use to differentiate their style within the genre has been stripped away and “Wan-ified” to make it as close to being a Wan film, without it actually being directed by him. In many ways, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is a film that is being helmed by Michael Chaves as the director, but not told by him and most certainly not nurtured by him as a narrative. It reminds one of how a demon takes hold of its host, telling them what to do, how to feel, and what to say – it is undeniable that James Wan is puppeteering this franchise to keep it all tonally consistent, not unlike the tactics used by Marvel Studios MCU. The brass tacks is that director Michael Chaves is here to direct, not to tell a story of his own, that is abundantly clear.
As for how this film stacks up within The Conjuring franchise? Well to put things bluntly, it’s a step down. Unfortunately, James Wan had written the second Conjuring film with a conclusion to the Ed and Lorraine storyline – much like he did with his films Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2. By extension, this film feels like an unnecessary appendage that moves the characters and narrative in no meaningful direction – feeling more akin to a flavor of the day side plot than a standalone story that required its own film. With that said, little of that detracts from the horror itself, and that’s really what anyone is here for. Cheap scares are infrequent and signature creative camera-work is used to frame much of the tension-ridden scares throughout the film. This doesn’t quite meet the horror artistry seen in the first two films, but it comes close enough that you could be fooled into thinking it was made by the same team. This is the somewhat watered down version, the poltergeist to a demon equivalent. Both are scary, but one of them is certainly more threatening.
This film, like Wan’s first two Conjuring films, contain many of the same components you’d expect to see in a film helmed by him, despite not being so. From the daytime single-takes, rotating shots in hallways, and low-angle establishing shots of a haunted house (with deep bass in the background). These are some of the few James Wan staples that make a reappearance in this film. The visual strengths of this franchise were always in its lighting and camera-work and this film is no different. The overall lighting aesthetic in this film went from being very bright to very dark – with the former using its daylit sequences to get through the meaty dialogue and the latter being used primarily for the horror itself. A small caveat however is that some dark sequences felt a little crushed, making environments difficult to discern. This film truly comes to life during high-intensity horror sequences, fusing its erratic editing style with clever and occasionally very inventive setups for scares.
Unlike most horror films that use the classic jump scare, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It deviates from the classic trope and instead uses its score and clever sound design to build up to the scare before going deadly silent. Joseph Bishara assembles a balance of screeching ambient tunes and an eerie hymn composition which gels with the supernatural aura this film possesses. The way the sound design is used to portray the demonic spirit is chilling, loud scratching noises on wooden posts and trees to the sound of objects getting knocked off is enough of a distraction to lure its targets before the spirit attacks.
This followup certainly provides enough solid scares to justify a viewing, further proving the James Wan formula works, even if it comes at the expense of complete creative freedom. I think what is clear is that these characters don’t have much more to give, as these films seem to be stretching the limits of what “based on a true story” can really do. With new sets of characters, a different setting, and new monsters, there’s real potential where this formula could pave the way for a wide-spanning high-quality interconnected horror universe. Hell, I’m certainly down for it.