What James Wan did with The Conjuring (2013) was something I don’t think anyone expected. He not just delivered a haunted house film that’s genuinely scary as well as being a technical achievement, but also he kicked off a successful franchise that’s now seven films deep with no signs of stopping. I’ll admit when it comes to the stories about Ed and Lorraine Warren, I have a bit of a bias. I’m a sucker for just about any and every paranormal show out there, and I’ve read numerous books about the Warrens and their case files. Everything from the “true” story behind the Amityville house, the “real” Annabelle, to some of the not-so-famous cases (at least the ones we haven’t seen a movie about). Whether you believe in the paranormal or feel the Warrens were nothing more than skilled hoaxers, the stories behind their cases are the stuff that will always make for a great campfire story, and as it’s been proven, some successful and entertaining films. So when it was announced that the next film was going to be about case where a man being put on trial and using the defense of possession, claiming the devil made him commit the crime, I was excited. Seeing how this was a real murder case that the Warrens were involved with, I was hoping we’d see a break from the traditional possession and haunted house film and delve into a courtroom drama. Alas, that isn’t the case. While the new film does take a somewhat different approach, I definitely have some mixed feelings on this one.
My biggest concern from the get-go about this film was that James Wan was not involved with directing the film. Granted he may have only done The Conjuring and its sequel, but I feel we can all agree those films outshine the other entries in the franchise by a great deal. Wan is simply one of the best directors working in film period. Though he may only stick to genre films, his work with crafting stories and his work with a camera is well above many of his contemporaries in the genre. Then to decide to have Michael Chaves, the director of The Curse of la Llorona helm the film was immediately cause for concern for me. To be blunt, I hated that film, and it was one of the worst films I saw that year. The saving grace was that at least Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga would be reprising their roles of Ed and Lorraine.
The film starts off in 1981. Ed and Lorraine are doing what they do best to try to help a family in need that is dealing with troubles of a paranormal nature. This time around it’s a little boy that may or may not be possessed by a demon. While the scene is fast-paced and intense, well, it does feel a bit familiar when you consider the glut of paranormal films that involve exorcisms nowadays. Wilson and Farmiga seem right at home in these roles, and it’s their chemistry that carries the brunt of this film. The biggest misstep taken this time around revolves around the family the Warrens are trying to help. Where the previous films seemed to spend just as much time with the troubled family as with the Warrens, this time the family feels more like an afterthought. The central person they are trying to help is Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Conner), who is accused of murdering his landlord, his claim being self-defense because he thought a demon was attacking him. The Warrens believe that while helping with the exorcism at the start of the film the demon leapt from the boy and into Arne. The trouble is the demon seems to no longer possess Arne.
I was thinking this was going to go the route of having Arne on trial, but instead the film becomes a little detective story for Ed and Lorraine as they try to figure out why this possession case is so unique. The first third of the film feels a bit clunky, on par with the quality we see in the spin-off films. It’s not bad, but it definitely feels like it’s missing something. Where the film picks up steam is when a totem is discovered and Warren’s start to believe that the possession is more in connection with a curse.
One of the films bright spots is seeing John Noble (Fringe) playing a former priest who is a caretaker of objects of the occult for the church. Seeing the Warrens interact with the former priest’s collection is one of the few clever moments in this, as they question why he would keep all these items when in fact they have their own collection of items in their basement at home.
As much as I enjoyed seeing more focus put on Ed and Lorraine, one thing I found a little troubling is how they are represented in this film. No one is perfect, and it’s nice to have flawed heroes to make them all the more believable, but it’s hard for me to believe the characters would do certain things we see this time around. One example is them breaking into a funeral home to see a corpse. We see it all the time in horror films, but these characters I just don’t believe would do this. Then there is how they go about confronting the film’s main villain. This is problematic in many ways, but that delves into spoiler territory.
The film is loaded with film references, everything from The Exorcist, The Shining, and even the first The Conjuring film, and as much as the film comes close to being on par with the other films, it just doesn’t quite do it. It’s not a bad film, but it’s definitely the weakest of The Conjuring films. I don’t believe this is the last we’ll see of Ed and Lorraine Warren on the big screen; there are still quite a few case files worth exploring. If you are a fan of the franchise, this is definitely worth checking out. I’m a little optimistic that after a second viewing the film will grow on me some more. It’s a fun movie, but I feel too many liberties were taken with the story to take it in a more schlocky direction. I feel taking this case to the courtroom could have elevated the franchise.