Watching scary movies is like eating spicy foods—they’re acquired tastes, and if you aren’t used to it, they can make for an unpleasant experience.
Fortunately for us, Vera Farmiga (The Departed) is not an acquired taste, she’s just plain pretty good, and in the newest entry in the long-running Conjuring series (annoyingly subtitled The Devil Made Me Do It), Farmiga reprises her role as real-life “psychic” Lorraine Warren for the fifth time. She not only carries the movie by virtue of her natural performance, but because her character has the psychic skills to move the plot forward. Her husband Ed (Patrick Wilson; Hard Candy), meanwhile, is too typically 1980s man-in-charge for us to care, and he moves literally nothing forward. Either way, the Warrens are back to investigate demon shit, and it’s scary.
Like too many horror films before it, the new Conjuring flashes its “based on a true story” title card before delving into the tale of Arne Johnson (Rauiri O’Connor), the first defendant in US history to plead not guilty due to demonic possession. Turns out it totally is based on a real story known as the Devil Made Me Do It case (oh, that’s where the subtitle came from!), but unlike too many horror movies before it, The Conjuring throws us right into the action.
In the first half alone there are six jump-scares and five creep-outs (times you brace for a jump-scare but your expectations are subverted), and director Michael Chaves (who helmed the video for Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend”) keeps the movie tense with these and similar elements. Everything is intensified by Joseph Bishara’s score; everything is relaxed by Blondie’s “Call Me,” which totally reminds you it’s the ’80s.
Still, as the film progresses, the tension becomes more palatable. This is both a relief and a disappointment, but once the demon speaks you really can’t unring that bell; further disappointment comes in the form of a lack of motivation from particularly important characters. A shoddy revelation coupled with no reason to care about anyone other than Farmiga’s character make The Conjuring a hard sell, even if its creepier first act scares cast a semi-memorable shadow over its later and more forgettable scenes.
+Body contortions; pop music
-Poor scare distribution
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
Directed by Chaves
With Farmiga, Wilson and O’Connor
Violet Crown and HBO Max, R, 112 min.