Satan’s Cheerleaders: Chaves Dowses Shallow Waters in Spiritless Witch Hunt
As we continue to plunder the mixed-up files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the infamous paranormal investigators behind the eventual genre staple The Amityville Horror, it’s clear we’ve now bypassed a state of diminishing returns. The third outing featuring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the sincerely quaint, lavishly vintage ghostbusters, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, riffs off a documented courtroom drama to explore the alleged demonic possession of a murderer. Foregoing legal proceedings for familiar supernatural antics, however, the innate strangeness of both the Warrens and this case are lost in a tepid fog of pseudo-religious histrionics.
Director Michael Chaves, who cut his teeth on the familiar (and equally vacuous) The Curse of La Llorona (2019), usurps the reigns from series creator James Wan, godfather of yet another vibrant franchise (Saw, Insidious) now entering the realm of its death knell. For genre fans appeased by going through the motions, this latest exhumation on the Warrens might superficially appease despite its obvious intentions as another endless franchise cash grab.
Back in 2013’s initial The Conjuring, the affected performance of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as her unabashedly dowdy cohort seemed fanciful, if not entirely forgivable for their treacly approximations of occultists with a heart of gold. Since then (and with a bushel of tangential offspring in tow, such as The Nun and the Annabelle series), constant revisitations have cast a brighter light upon these increasingly hoary antics.
Lost in the beautifully irreverent title credit font is the idea of why, in a third installment, we’re rehashing their ‘most sinister discovery.’ Eventually, it’s a film of semantics. Rather than a possession, we’re dealing with a curse, chasing quid pro quo arrangements to find clues which hurtle us haphazardly towards a cornball finale. Penned by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (whose most assured screenplay to date was the shock value fun of 2009’s Orphan, also featuring Farmiga), the Warrens have been cemented into a formidably monotonous routine. Lorraine’s gifts leave her on a dangerous precipice, and the shallow anxiety meant to be generated by Ed’s constant clucking only allows the script to reveal itself as a poorly constructed glob of lip synch.
The end credits feature actual photos of the Warrens, revealing the weird possibilities of more intriguing casting (someone out there could do something truly bizarro with Grace Zabriskie as Lorraine), and an even less assured supporting cast in this third installment negates the possibility of pleasurable side distractions. Early 80s tunes proliferate the soundtrack but can’t conjure (pun intended) the correct period.
If Eddie Money is fun, Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” (recently blaring over home speakers in Army of the Dead) is too on the nose. However, the film’s most persuasively constructed scene, set to Blondie’s Call Me, while not coming so far as to court the iconicity of American Gigolo’s opening credits, channels an eeriness the rest of the film lacks. Character actors John Noble and Eugenie Bondurant (in spinster-ish Geraldine Chaplin attire) have a briefly compelling moment or two, but in this go round, the devil’s doing the same old dance.