The films of the Conjuring universe haven't all been winners, but the first two main installments (director James Wan's The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2) had a stylish, creepy charm to them, and some of the spinoffs (including Annabelle: Creation) provided solid exercises in horror.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the third film based very loosely on a "true" story featuring Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The now infamous paranormal investigators always seemed to be present when somebody cried possession in the '70s and '80s. For example, they were sniffing around the premises that later inspired the Amityville Horror franchise (referenced in The Conjuring 2).
This time out, the story is based on the real "Devil Made Me Do It" case that saw a man stab another man to death, and later claim that demonic possession led to his crime. So, a real life guy murdered somebody and then entered a plea that it wasn't his fault because demonic forces were controlling his limbs. That early '80s case didn't get very far in the courts, but it is treated with total seriousness in the world of The Conjuring.
And that world has become a hackneyed, tiresome recycling of horror tropes in The Devil Made Me Do It. James Wan has vacated the director's chair, leaving the proceedings in the not so capable hands of Michael Chaves (The Curse of la Llorona), who resorts to full-on rip-off of William Friedkin's The Exorcist in the film's opening minutes.
The Warrens are present in the prologue as a young boy gets possessed and does some unintentionally funny "spider walk" contortions accompanied by the obligatory disgusting mouth froth. The priest that performs the exorcism arrives on scene in a moment that recreates the silhouetted image from The Exorcist poster, so there's no real attempt to hide that classic film's influence. The only things missing from the exorcism scene are Max Von Sydow and gallons of pea soup.
During the latter stages of the demonic melee, the young boy passes his malevolent body renter onto his sister's boyfriend, Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor). Johnson suffers some hallucinations soon thereafter, and eventually stabs a guy to death while allegedly under the influence of the devil's minions. The Warrens, after witnessing the initial exorcism, come back to town to investigate the possible possession, and find that all sorts of evil forces are involved.
So, a real-life murderer is depicted in this movie as an unwilling vessel for the devil's business, with the Warrens fully convinced he's innocent thanks to the forces of the little red devil guy. As portrayed by O'Connor, Arne Johnson is just a sweet fella who protected a little bespectacled boy by allowing a demon to jump from the kid into him. He's actually a hero in the movie.
Who cares, right? As long as the scares are good, we'll take some bending of the truth in the name of cinematic horror.
Chaves and his writers are not up to the task, concocting a bunch of unfocused nonsense involving curses, witch totems, cults, ghoulish priests, basements, scary woods, corpses, rats, waterbeds, dog kennels and murderous daughters. It seems as if every other scene in this film features Farmiga's character heading into a basement or crawlspace with a flashlight because that's what you do in horror films. While Wan could make old tricks feel new, Chaves just does them to death with no reward. At just under two hours, his film feels twice as long.
The Warrens had quite a few investigations during their run, so this franchise has some more "true stories" to bounce off of for future installments. Rest assured, there will be more Conjuring films. The Warrens need a serious change of scenery, so future writers should transform one of their haunted houses into a skyscraper that's on fire, or an airplane flying over the Bermuda Triangle. Switch things up. Little kids frothing from the mouth and possessed dudes with foggy contact lenses hanging around in basements are getting tired.
As for that true story claim at the beginning of this movie, the level of truth in a Conjuring film is akin to the level of actual alcohol you find in your watered down dive bar cocktail mixed by a guy named Lenny on a Thursday night.