The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

The latter part of the 20th century came up with some interesting ways in which people tried to get away with murder.  One was that God told them to do it, which was a late '70s legal attempt to get obviously guilty clients found insane or incompetent to avoid a death penalty.  The other, made popular with the case of Arne Cheyenne Johnson in 1981, has been derisively referred to as the "Flip Wilson" defense: "The Devil made me do it."  

On February 16, 1981, Arne Johnson had an altercation of some sort with his landlord, Alan Bono, which led to Johnson stabbing Bono 22 times.  He was found a few miles away by police with Bono's blood on him stating that he didn't mean to hurt anyone.  When asked why he did it Johnson claimed to have been possessed by a demon that he had invited to exit from his girlfriend Debbie Glatzel's youngest brother David and come into him.  His lawyer initially pled not guilty due to demonic possession but, when disallowed by the judge, pled self defense,  Johnson, rather than facing the death penalty for first degree murder, instead served five years of a 10 to 20 year sentence for first degree manslaughter before being released, marrying Debbie and living a life that resulted in no further run-ins with the law. 

The case drew massive media attention due to the ridiculousness of the defense and also due to the involvement of paranormal "researchers" Ed and Lorraine Warren.  The pair were integral in arranging the exorcism for David and in advising on demonic possession in an effort to help the defense in an effort to keep Johnson from being put to death.  Besides the immediate media attention the case was made into a television movie, The Demon Murder Case, in 1983.  That same year, based on interviews with Johnson, Debbie Glatzel and the Warrens, Gerald Brittle published a bestseller called The Devil in Connecticut.  It was also the subject of an episode of the Discovery Channel series A Haunting and the basis for the third movie in James Wan's The Conjuring series. 

David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) is suffering attacks from a demonic possession.  During a botched exorcism arranged by Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), Arne Johnson (Ruairie O'Connor) invites the demon to possess him instead.  It obliges and, despite the family moving on, Arne starts having trouble controlling what is inside him.  One day he comes home early from work and, after fixing his landlord Bruno's (Arnie Gene Blevins) stereo, proceeds to have a small party.  When Bruno gets handsy with Arne's girlfriend Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), Arne blacks out and comes to when he is found walking along the road with Bruno's blood on him.

Lorraine, who tried to contact Debbie to let her know of her concerns about the demon, agrees to help Arne avoid the death penalty.  She and Ed discover a totem under the floor of the Glatzel's rental house and seek help from Father Kastner (John Noble), a retired priest with experience in the occult.  They soon find out that a similar totem was found near Danvers, Massachusetts, in a case where a young girl was found murdered and her girlfriend missing.  Their investigation leads to the discovery of a Satan worshipper (Eugenie Bondurant) that is responsible for targeting different people for her own goals, and that Ed may be her latest victim.

Despite the supernatural overtones the real Arne Johnson's case is pretty straightforward.  Apparently he was not a person that should have alcohol in any capacity and that may have led to a brawl during a blackout that led to the murder.  The jury was told to ignore any talk of demonic possession and, in my opinion, made the right decision.  While there was no evidence of premeditated murder, the amount of wounds showed some intent even if Johnson didn't remember doing it.  He served his time and, on their part, he and Debbie have backed up the Warrens' possession claims.  Carl Glatzel Jr., David's older brother who is not portrayed in the film for legal reasons, says that his brother David was mentally ill and that the Warrens took advantage of his family.

Putting all that aside, and putting my views on the Warrens aside, I found this third entry to be better than The Conjuring 2 even if it is a bit convoluted.  No real motive is ever given for the Satanist's summoning of the demon nor for the suffering of the families other than wanting to "sow chaos," as Kastner puts it.  This movie eschews the haunted house theme of the other two, opting more for a detective story.  It has a few more jump scares which director Michael Chaves, to his credit, works for rather than just having things skitter around in front of the camera but behind our protagonists.  Thankfully this movie, for once, doesn't have anything like that, since I find it one of the laziest conventions in modern horror films.

Another reason I like this a bit more is because it has the feel of an exploitation film.  Real names are generally being used and it's a murder case known outside of paranormal circles.  The involvement of the Warrens and all the other story that was added in - the occultist, the other murders, etc. - had nothing to do with this case at all.  Some of it comes from other Warren cases, while a good amount was made up by Wan and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.  Due to that there are possessed, walking corpses and jailhouse exorcisms involving levitation and other unexplained phenomena, basically things that work in a good scare film.  For once I wasn't so concerned about the Warrens as the way they are portrayed in this, albeit a bit sappy on the "love conquers all" front, is a totally fictional manner rather than trying to make them real-life heroes.  By playing even looser with the truth than before this series has ironically made itself less distasteful. 

My major concern is that this movie may be used as an excuse to give the Occultist her own prequel film but, as this wasn't as popular with fans as before, maybe Wan will back off on that for once.  In interviews it is said the demon she worked with - which was cut from the film - was the intended, but money, rather than story or creativity, often guides these things.  That said, I hope they follow their current plans to just transition to another film with the Warrens and, if they tighten things up and continue to make it clear the movie version of the Warrens is a far cry from the real thing, they might just keep this series fresh.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)
Time: 112 minutes
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruaire O'Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Eugenie Bondurant
Director: Michael Chaves



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