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Movie Review: “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

One of my few regrets from my years in law school is that, while living for three years in New Haven, I never made the trek out to Monroe, Connecticut to visit Ed and Lorraine Warren’s house. This controversial husband-and-wife duo—he a demonologist, she an alleged clairvoyant—investigated a wide variety of paranormal incidents during their long career together, leading to their cultivation of a museum of objects used in esoteric rites, including the notorious “Annabelle” doll.

Alas, in the absence of firsthand experience, I’ve been left to settle for second best—the increasingly sprawling cinematic universe of “The Conjuring,” loosely based on their cases. 2013 and 2016 marked the release of two of the finest—and interestingly enough, least grisly—horror films of the past decade. (“The Conjuring 2” is probably the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.) Follow-up flicks—the uneven “Annabelle” trilogy and the (weaker still) spinoffs “The Nun” and “The Curse of La Llorona—were lucrative, but suffered in quality.

With “The Devil Made Me Do It”, “La Llorona” director Michael Chaves takes the reins from series architect James Wan (known for “Saw” and “Insidious”). And while this third main-series installment packs a more substantial punch than some of the other entries in the “Conjuring”canon, I’m sad to report that it’s a bit of a mess.

“The Devil Made Me Do It” begins with the brutal exorcism of eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). To save David’s life, family friend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) agrees to let the demon take him instead. A few days later, with his sense-perceptions clouded by demonic influence, young Arne then goes on to kill his employer in a terrified frenzy. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are subsequently brought in to help him develop a “demonic possession defense” that will spare him the death penalty.

The first half hour of “The Devil Made Me Do It” is the “Conjuring” series at its best. Jump scares, monstrous claws dragged along building walls, escalating dread—it’s all here. The stage is set for a judicial showdown over the terms of engagement with the spiritual within late modernity.

But despite this setup, things don’t quite develop into the edgy courtroom thriller one would expect. Eventually, the Warrens discover that the Glatzel family was cursed by a powerful Satanist cult leader—a human adversary directing and manipulating demonic forces. The only way to stop her is to smash the altar that “grounds” her curse. And from there, things start to play out somewhat like Frank Peretti’s novel “This Present Darkness.” Demonic attacks start showing up in multiple places—at the Warrens’ house, in the deep forest, in the prison facility where Arne is kept, and so on. 

The third act, unfortunately, goes off the rails altogether. In seeking to deliver a big baroque climax that outdoes its predecessors, “The Devil Made Me Do It” swaps nail-chewing terror for monster-of-the-week spectacle. If you’ve seen a few episodes of “Supernatural,” you know what you’re in for.

I may be one of the last people who thinks this, but I’ve always thought that Christian-based supernatural horror films are strongest when they proceed with a distinct theological seriousness. In this particular context, a film ought to reflect a Catholic understanding of evil as not simply grotesquerie, but rather that which is oriented toward nonbeing, the utter disordering and degradation of the good. The first “Conjuring,” unfortunately, suffered from a certain ontological ambiguity surrounding the central antagonist: is it a witch’s ghost or a demon? The second was far better, pitting the Warrens against a single monstrous demon driven from its perch and seeking revenge (Matt. 12:43–45, anyone?) while traveling under the form of a skeletal nun. The demonic forces in this third installment, sadly, are pretty bog-standard monsters, and never come close to the sheer nastiness of those in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” or even “The Conjuring 2.” Untethered from a genuine attempt to understand why demons do what they do, what it means to be alienated from God and seeking to drag down others into that same abyss, an aesthetic of black candles and animal skulls is just cheesy pop-Satanism.

That’s not the only area, unfortunately, where this movie’s lack of serious spiritual interest proves to be a problem.

(Spoiler alert)

Early on, Ed and Lorraine swing by the house of a retired priest (John Noble) with an expertise in Satanic cults. As it so happens, this priest hasn’t destroyed all the occult objects he retrieved from evil rites; instead he’s locked them up in his basement, comparing it to “taking guns off the streets.” Now if you’re anything like me, this already sets your horror movie Spidey-sense tingling. But there’s a problem with this inference: Lorraine’s visions of the cult leader show a female antagonist.

There’s indeed a connection, though. Eventually we come to learn that the cultist is the priest’s illegitimate daughter, who had to be hidden from the Church and who developed an unhealthy interest in her father’s cult-busting work. This “revelation,” such as it is, is a profoundly unsatisfying one. We never learn why the daughter is targeting families for destruction, or what exactly she gains from cursing others. We know virtually nothing about her at all. As a result, the climax feels rather like learning in the last few pages of a mystery novel that the murderer was really “Cousin Bert,” who lives 100 miles away and whom nobody has ever heard of.

The logical answer to this screenwriting problem, I think, rests in a more daring narrative move: what if the cult-smashing priest was actually female from the start? What if, as a young woman, she experienced a call of God to the ministry, but was barred from ordination because of her sex—and, with no other perceived recourse, chose to live the life of a man instead? Might not such a figure, over time, grow resentful over being forced to live such an all-consuming lie? Might she not gravitate toward powers and principalities that would not demand such renunciation? On this view, Lorraine’s visions of a female cultist are impressions that pick up the priest’s own self-image beneath the layered deception—the ontological truth of her, so to speak.

Something like this, I think, better draws together the story’s narrative threads and foregrounds some genuinely provocative theological issues. Not to mention, it’s terrifying stuff: what could possibly be more frightening than a priest gone over to the “dark side”? Who could possibly be trusted in such a world?

(End spoilers)

Despite all these criticisms, I did enjoy this movie. The production values are top-notch, and for those who wish to look, there’s a great deal of interesting thematic material here if one’s willing to draw it to the surface. As a friend pointed out to me, there’s a sense in which this movie is built around the idea of marriage as a sacrament. If that argument holds, there’s a fascinating parallel here to the way in which “La Llorona” and “The Nun” hinge on Baptism and the Eucharist, respectively. For fans of the genre, it’s worth a watch on HBO Max, even if it doesn’t hit the heights of its predecessors.

There’s vastly more I could say about “The Devil Made Me Do It,” but I’ll just close with this. The night after I watched “The Conjuring 2,” I had nightmares of looming demon-nuns, waking up in a cold sweat and peering into spots of shadow in my room, all despite myself. The night after I watched “The Devil Made Me Do It,” I slept like a baby. 

“Conjuring” series fans, the choice is yours.

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Posted by on June 7, 2021 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”

Ever since I was old enough to really care about movies, I’ve had a conflicted relationship with Zack Snyder’s work. As a teenager and early twentysomething, I reveled in the video game-influenced aesthetics of “300” and “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch,” from the macho screenwriting to the slo-mo eruptions of fire and blood. Something changed, though, with 2013’s “Man of Steel,” which I described at the time as “rather like being smashed over the head with a boom box on full blast.” Snyder’s “gritty” take on the Superman mythos was a cacophonous, punishing experience, one almost entirely devoid of the joy and heroism I associated with the character. And 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”—which featured an even glummer Superman alongside a Batman who readily killed his enemies—was an even lower point.

I’ve always justified my opinion of Snyder’s work, at least to myself, on principally philosophical grounds. Technically proficient as they are, pervasive throughout Snyder’s films is what seems to be a sense of obeisance before raw power—a leering, even Nietzschean admiration for sheer destructive vitality. Snyder’s “heroes” are alien and inaccessible demigods, capable of reducing city blocks to ash but incapable of experiencing any recognizably human sentiments or motivations.  “Tonight we dine in hell!” bellows Snyder’s Leonidas in “300,” and it’s difficult not to think that’s what Snyder himself prefers to anything contemplative or beatific.

But time makes fools of us all, and as the years have passed, I’ve come to think that perhaps it was me who was missing something, at least where Snyder’s most ambitious and audacious work was concerned. “Batman v Superman”—particularly its much-improved extended edition—has kept drawing me back over the years despite myself. And in due course, I’ve come to understand the film as a case study of the way, under modernity, that the presence of the truly divine (Superman) would be experienced. From a standpoint that takes the contemporary conditions of life as unquestionable, the inbreaking of the divine is a dangerous and uncontrollable wildcard, a source of alien or transcendent authority whose existence necessarily relativizes and destabilizes every conceivable human endeavor, and for that reason it must be extinguished. In short, if the world is to go on as it has, it needs a kind of Pontius Pilate.

Or perhaps, at least, a Tower of Babel. Enter Batman, the perfect specimen of finite humanity who has attained the peak of physical and financial perfection, and now seeks to challenge a god. The stakes of the fight between Batman and Superman are thus not simply the stuff of comic books, but something existential. In coming to blows with the Kryptonian intruder from beyond, Batman seeks to “mount up” to divinity himself; Superman, his foil, epitomizes the descent of the divine to a suffering humanity (a contrast Snyder visually evokes in a haunting montage sequence). On this reading, the Man of Steel’s much-maligned cry of “Martha!”—which leads an angry Batman to suddenly realize the kinship between himself and Superman—goes from stupid to profound: it is the identification of a principle of analogy between the two heroes. Superman, for all his godlikeness, is still in some sense recognizably human, capable of experiencing the condition of childlikeness in the presence of one’s mother. This is all very heady theological stuff, far more than I’d ever given Snyder credit for, and it makes the film’s explicitly Christian imagery (Superman dying in a Pietà pose after taking a spear wound to the chest and saving the world?) feel much more grounded and appropriate.

And that, at bottom, is why I was so excited when “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” finally made its debut on HBO Max. The clumsily titled flick is Snyder’s much-anticipated attempt to rehabilitate 2017’s “Justice League”—a film that, following the suicide of Snyder’s daughter and his departure from the project, ended up being recut and substantially reshot by “Avengers” director Joss Whedon. The result was a $300 million mess, and not even the entertaining kind. Rushed, sloppy, and tonally inconsistent, it was a decidedly bathetic culmination of the DC Cinematic Universe. But what if Snyder had been given free rein to realize his original vision, without studio interference? That is the question “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” aims to permanently resolve.

And resolve it it does, in a sprawling four-hour extravaganza that redefines the scope of what a “director’s cut” can be.

Story-wise, Snyder’s new version hits roughly the same plot points as the original film, though the overwhelming majority of the actual footage is new. Picking up several months after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the hands of the misbegotten monster Doomsday, most of the film’s first half follows Batman (Ben Affleck) as he races to assemble a team of “metahumans” to stop a coming invasion. Superman’s dying cry has, quite literally, torn the veil between worlds; out of the breach charges the seemingly indestructible alien warrior Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of flying Parademons. Steppenwolf, it so happens, is a disgraced lieutenant of the cosmic warlord Darkseid, who’s hellbent on conquering Earth after it resisted his invasion long ago. To get back in Darkseid’s good graces, Steppenwolf must reclaim the three “Mother Boxes”—components of a planet-purging weapon that must be united and synchronized in order to trigger—from Earth’s three tribes: the humans, the Amazons, and the Atlanteans. To be sure, this is densely mythological, even Tolkienesque stuff, but the film’s lengthy runtime gives it room to develop. While the Mother Boxes felt like half-baked MacGuffins in the original flick, here they serve a real purpose, and Steppenwolf comes off less as a B-list stopgap villain and more as a harbinger of worse things to come.

As the film plays out, Wayne eventually cobbles together a team consisting of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the Flash (Ezra Miller). Of the five, it’s Cyborg who gets the most development to his backstory: following a tragic car accident, he is condemned by his scientist father to a kind of half-life inside a metal exoskeleton, blessed with astonishing powers but permanently alienated from the rest of humanity. And (at the risk of spoiling a four-year-old movie) then there’s Superman himself, this time sporting a sleek black suit but no less heroic for it.

Is four hours a lengthy runtime for a superhero movie? You bet. But even when the pacing lags a bit—as one would expect—Snyder uses that time to develop his characters rather than jam in more action sequences, which keeps the film from feeling overwhelming. (The major fight scenes are extended in length, but I think the Snyder Cut actually may have fewer of them in numerical terms.) And the visuals are similarly improved this time around: Snyder has taken the opportunity (plus a $70 million check from Warner Brothers) to clean up some of the original movie’s janky CGI, as well as dialed back the aesthetically unpleasing red glow that dominated the original cut’s climax. Even at the height of its exposition dumping, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is always pretty to look at.

I’d be remiss in my critical duties if I didn’t note that the Snyder Cut is backed by a thundering, all-new score by Tom Holkenborg (d/b/a Junkie XL) that fits the mood far, far better than Danny Elfman’s original approach.  I don’t know who decided that character leitmotifs were out of fashion, but I’ve missed them: this new score deploys the instantly recognizable Superman and Wonder Woman themes, among others, for maximum effect. And this means that as the film’s climactic battle rages, its emotional beats feel earned, grounded in the stories of characters we’ve seen across numerous prior movies.

But none of this is why I was so interested in seeing Snyder’s remake in the first place.

Like its predecessors, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is not without a distinctly religious dimension. Most notably, Bruce Wayne is a changed man since the events of “Batman v Superman.” Something about Superman’s sacrifice has radically transformed how he understands both himself and his place in the cosmos. And as it becomes clear that the nascent Justice League must place its hope in Superman’s potential resurrection, Wayne explicitly calls this shift what it is: for him, it is the end of “reason” and the beginning of faith. Gone is the brutal, jaded Dark Knight training for war against the divine and donning thick battle armor. Instead, here is a Batman who accepts his human limitations and acknowledges the necessity of a more profound power from beyond.

The cleverest allusion to this theme is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment entirely absent from Whedon’s film. As the movie wraps up, Bruce Wayne decides to establish the first physical headquarters of the Justice League, featuring six chairs and “room for more.” “God help us,” murmurs Alfred (Jeremy Irons). It’s a half-second, almost throwaway line, but it captures something important about Snyder’s films: they’re telling a story that, at some level, is about the descent of God to human beings. Whether or not they’re entirely successful at that goal is a separate question; maybe it’s enough that these movies want to be theological and metaphysical epics, rather than just episodic throwaway entertainment. That’s praiseworthy enough in its own right.

When all’s said and done, perhaps the worst thing about “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is how extensively it arranges the pieces for an apocalyptic follow-up film we may never get to see. The League, of course, must eventually cross paths with Darkseid himself, with the fate of the world on the line—and if Snyder’s comments about the potential sequel(s) are to be believed, the DC endgame would’ve been spectacular indeed.

As far as I’m concerned, let’s do this thing. #RestoreTheSnyderVerse.

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Posted by on March 19, 2021 in Fantasy

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