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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: “Promising Young Woman”

Carey Mulligan is perhaps best known for portraying tragic ingénues, turning in memorable performances in roles like Ryan Gosling’s doe-eyed (and criminally underwritten) love interest in 2011’s “Drive,” and the evanescent Daisy Buchanan in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby.” In Emerald Fennell’s new “Promising Young Woman,” Mulligan finally gets the chance to subvert that persona in an Oscar-caliber reversal, dominating a film that delivers lacerating cultural commentary in exploitation-flick disguise. Given the marketing for this movie, you’d be forgiven for expecting a conventional rape-and-revenge plot-line, in the vein of “The Last House on the Left” or “I Spit On Your Grave,” but what actually shows up onscreen is something much more unexpected.

(Some spoilers in the discussion to come. You’ve been warned.)

Fennell’s film centers on the thirtysomething Cassie (Mulligan) a medical-school dropout who works in a Los Angeles coffee shop by day and frequents the local bars by night, pretending to be hopelessly drunk. Over and over, Cassie lures lecherous men into compromising situations before turning on them like a vengeful Artemis, forcing them to come face-to-face with their predatory behavior. Meanwhile, at the same time she struggles to form a relationship with her former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), a successful pediatrician who’s committed to persuading Cassie that maybe there are some good men out there after all.

It soon becomes clear, however, that this isn’t actually the story of Cassie’s own trauma, but rather that of her late classmate and friend Nina, who was cruelly assaulted while blacked out at a drunken party. For Cassie, perpetually haunted by the fact that she didn’t stop Nina from going to the fateful party in the first place, the only way to expiate her guilt is to make the perpetrators pay. Her key targets aren’t limited to the rapist and his accomplices: also on her list are the school officials and lawyers who swept the offense under the rug.

And it’s here that “Promising Young Woman” runs into a bit of a thematic snag. On the one hand, it’s clear that Fennell’s film is committed to a compelling defense of female agency: women should be free to go where they choose without the threat of being raped. In so arguing, the film amounts to a bruising indictment of anyone who would excuse sexual assault by saying well, she shouldn’t have been drinking in the first place. Responsibility lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. But at the same time, its protagonist is consumed with guilt for not undermining that agency—not stopping Nina from going to the party—and in framing her as a genuine heroine meting out justice against evil people, the movie suggests that this guilt is justified. If indeed individuals are solely responsible for their own choices, though, is Cassie genuinely inculpated by Nina’s exercise of her own agency?

The overall effect of this paradox is that it’s unclear how the viewer should feel about Cassie’s onscreen experience of guilt—and, by extension, her whole crusade. Does Cassie need to atone for her sins in this way? Is she or isn’t she to blame for what happened to Nina? Perhaps Fennell means the audience to simply sit with this unresolved tension—to leave it ambiguous whether “Promising Young Woman” is a tragic meditation on cycles of guilt and recrimination, or a triumphant account of an avenging, atoning angel bringing down swift retribution. But I think the latter is closer to the truth: in many ways, “Promising Young Woman” is the same sort of celebration of postmortem vengeance that made Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” such a controversial hit.

That said, this whole issue is somewhat peripheral to the story’s intended direction. Far more memorable than its internal tension is the mood of pervasive threat that it conjures up, a mood rooted chiefly in its depiction of male silence—the willingness of too many men to make excuses for each other when forced to confront the impact of their actions on the women in their lives. And that, I think, is the film’s principal takeaway.

Technically speaking, “Promising Young Woman” is a standout, marked in particular by its arresting art design and cinematography. A pervasive 1950s aesthetic suffuses the film’s daytime scenes, which disappears entirely once the much grittier nighttime sequences begin—a nice visual evocation of the darkness that often lurks beneath the surface of everyday life. And to her great credit, Fennell avoids choppy editing in favor of lingering takes that her leads’ emotions to play out, lending real depth to her characters. Mulligan, as previously noted, is singularly great in the lead role—as is the supporting cast, notably Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Alfred Molina.

For those who might be put off by the subject matter, this is not an especially gruesome film—the real horror lies in the viewer’s imagination of what’s happening off-camera—but it is by no means an easy watch. It is, however, well worth your time. As an unsettling parable of deep wounds and delayed justice, “Promising Young Woman” is a tremendous success. (And I look forward to seeing whatever Fennell directs next.)

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2021 in Thrillers

 
 
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