Hiders & Seekers June 15, 2021
On The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and A Quiet Place Part II
hen you make a deal with the devil, he tends to keep his end of the bargain. One wishes that Arne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor), the guy who spends a good
chunk of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It possessed, had kept this in mind before requesting the big red one do him a favor. As the film opens, in the summer of 1981, the paranormal investigators-slash-married couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who have led every Conjuring movie thus far, are assisting the Glatzels. The baby of this average family, David (Julian Hilliard), has ostensibly been possessed ever since his family moved into a farmhouse in georgic Connecticut. When we first enter the home, we can guess that trouble has been brewing there for some time now. The walls are slashed with unearthly claw marks; the furniture looks like it has just barely survived a cyclone. The Devil Made Me Do It’s opening scene plays out like the climaxes of
both Conjuring movies in snack-sized form. It’s an exorcism that makes you tense up as much as it impresses you with its demonic showmanship. Arne, who is the boyfriend of David’s older sister (Sarah Catherine Hook) and for some reason in attendance, decides that he has had enough with all this haunting business. The nerve of the devil, or whichever one of his lackeys is doing the work here, to do this to a little boy. Despite being warned not to engage with this thing from another world, Arne looks David in the eye — or the horned and dagger-tailed being that is using those eyes — and implores the beast to “leave him alone and take me.”
I don’t have to tell you that that’s not a very good idea. Though it doesn’t seem to be at first — days pass without a peep from the underworld. Then the peaceful streak ends as abruptly as David’s initial bewitching. Apparently in thrall to delayed possession, Arne stabs his landlord 22 times. When the Warrens catch wind of this, they deduce the truth at the heart of the matter and immediately try to intervene. Lorraine, a clairvoyant, even calls the town’s cops ahead of the murder to warn them that a “tragedy” is about to occur in Arne's building. Later, the Warrens make a plea to Arne’s lawyer to use demonic possession as evidence of his technical innocence. “I think it’s about time we accept the existence of the devil,” Ed says matter-of-factly.
The lawyer is reasonably skeptical but is eventually persuaded, in a scene the movie doesn’t dramatize, that the demon invocation isn’t such a ludicrous idea after dining at the Warrens’ house. It’s the next best form of indoctrination since the option to watch the Conjuring movies and all its spin-offs was not available in 1981. Arne becomes the first person in 193 years in his small town to have killed someone. He also becomes the first person in the U.S. to actually use demonic possession as means of defense in a murder trial. (Like the previous Conjuring movies, The Devil Made Me Do It is based on a true story; “based” should really be bolded and italicized, though, especially since the Warrens themselves, by most accounts, are neither the saintly — pun intended — crusaders against the demonic nor wholesome lovebirds they are framed as in these cheerily revisionist movies.)
Arne’s possession, surprisingly, becomes the B plot in The Devil Made Me Do It. This is the first movie in the Conjuring series to not focus mostly on a white middle-class family’s terrorization in a textbook haunted house. It seems to the Warrens that they are not dealing with your average demon, so the movie’s core becomes their investigation into what exactly they’re dealing with. (Whether Arne is put to death is contingent on what they find.) In certain hours Arne seems just fine. Most of the time you can spritz him with holy water and the only thing that bothers him about it is its coldness; he can read from the Bible with no trouble except for maybe a word tripping him up.
After some whittling it seems like there might be a sort of “curse” placed on the Glatzels and potentially several others in the community. This then leads to the discovery that there could be a witch in the area, if you can believe it, doing the cursing. (When we eventually meet her, austere with a tight bun and kempt black robe, the movie has a good time presenting her as something like Lorraine’s evil twin: this is who Mrs. Warren might have become had she used her occult obsession and psychic powers for unfettered evil rather than committed peace-making.) Before you can question why a witch would curse seemingly random collections of people in her sphere, a paranormal expert in the movie almost addresses the viewers directly. He thinks it’s useless to try to rationalize the actions of those practicing the dark arts. All they want to do fundamentally is create chaos, destroy order.
The Devil Made Me Do It is the worst of the Conjuring
movies on a horror front — it’s the first to lack a genuinely scary moment. (The quality has been degrading since 2013’s largely wonderful first chapter, though 2 was still solid.) Granted, the film, the first to not be directed by James Wan (those duties were passed to Michael Chaves this time), doesn’t seem quite as interested as its predecessors in being consistently scary. It’s having more fun as a detective story — a search through a different branch of creepy occult stuff — where the Warrens sometimes have to break into morgues by punching out their front doors and tour basements full of jinxed paraphernalia in middle-of-nowhere farmhouses.
The Devil Made Me Do It also seems to enjoy dwelling more in the sheer spectacle around possession and things that go bump in the night than it does the real terrors undergirding them. It’s more this is very dark but also kind of interesting than this is really frightening. The Devil Made Me Do It of course needs a conventional horror-movie moment from time to time to maintain genre credo. There’s a goofy set piece involving what can only be described as a haunted water bed. (It’s the most on-the-nose element in the movie to signify to viewers its 1981 setting beside the Blondie needle-drop during Arne’s possession.) There’s also a far cleverer one where the Warrens try to find a murder victim in a forest and Lorraine, in psychic mode, winds up essentially embodying the entire sequence of events as Ed and a baffled policeman look on. This is performance art, seer style.
The Devil Made Me Do It is also invested — obligatorily by now — in further exploring the relationship between the Warrens and juxtaposing the tenderness they hold steadfast with the supernatural-related chaos into which their lives regularly descend. The Devil Made Me Do It’s leaning on the Warrens’ romance scans a bit more treacly than it did its predecessors, especially during the climax. (It was more a garnish back then, now a point of perhaps too much attention.) And I don’t love the romanticization of the Warrens, who in life were morally dubious figures. (In general I’d prefer it if these movies changed the names of characters and places but kept the cruxes of stories on which they’re based: especially with The Devil Made Me Do It, it feels particularly irresponsible, since a brutal murder and its circumstances are made into spectacle.) But I can’t help but value that in a horror series, already rare as is, we do come to care about the people at the front, even if they’re mostly divorced from the people after whom they’re modeled. That’s also a testament to Farmiga and Wilson, who inhabit these roles with charming earnestness and have convincing chemistry.
Even if The Devil Made Me Do It’s story is the series’ least engaging, I still appreciated its willingness to expand the storytelling limitations that seemed to have been imposed by the first few movies, with their emphases on haunted houses and the exorcisms that happened within them. Where might this saga go next? (I suppose I could take a look at the various lists delineating the real-life Warrens’ most famous ventures.) With their financial viability and studio willingness to greenlight spinoffs, it’s safe to assume that there will be another Conjuring film in the next few years. Even though The Devil Made Me Do It is an absolute nadir for the franchise, I’ll keep watching — a bit like an animal who will eat whatever is thrown at them even if it doesn’t taste especially good — because this series at minimum promises well-craftedness, a decent amount of visual style, good performances, and plenty of demon action.
Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.
ere there many people who finished John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) and thought immediately about a sequel? That thriller, you’ll remember, was about a family, the Abbotts, trying to survive an alien
apocalypse. (The invaders, who arrived on Earth without any warning, killed anything that so much as made a sound.) The efficiently told, admirably taut story seemed pretty self-contained. But Krasinski, I guess, is too interested in (I think cynical) franchise-building to believe that less is more. We’re a few weeks out from the release of A Quiet Place Part II, which was supposed to go wide in 2020 but was inevitably delayed because of COVID; we’re also about a year or two away from a third installment, which is currently under development. The good news is that part two, unfortunately not called A Quieter Place, is about as effective a thriller as its predecessor. It, to borrow a cliché oft-used in reviews of movies who also have a thrill-a-minute complex, successfully “never lets up.” But its stability as a thrill machine comes at the expense of any meaningful expansion that satisfactorily elaborates on, rather than simply reiterates, what made the first film memorable.
Rarely do filmmakers get the chance to not just direct but also write a sequel to one of their movies — an opportunity to make things “bigger” than its predecessor, as the saying goes, but also to better get to know characters we’ve grown fond enough of to want to revisit. A Quiet Place Part II does broaden its scope. The cast, generally confined to one setting in the first film, wanders farther outward, which inexorably means the introduction of more characters and perilous situations in new environments. (We finally find out whether the sound monsters can swim or not; we also get an even gnarlier version of the climactic moment in the first movie when a character steps on a nail poking out of a stair step and tries to avoid screaming.)
But Krasinski, disappointingly, doesn’t do very much — if anything — to give further dimension to his characters, who already had little to them in the first movie. (The Emily Blunt-portrayed matriarch, her teenage kids played by Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds, and Blunt’s newborn baby remain; the first movie, spoiler alert, saw the demises of the Krasinski-portrayed patriarch and the tot of the family, who should not have turned on a light-up toy while in the open air.) We continue to know next to nothing of the Abbotts’ histories, their personhood. All we’re aware of is what they’re immediately thinking and feeling. This can make them feel less like people and more like engines for action sequences.
Though likely to also be inclined to up the ante on action-sequence ambitiousness, a more perceptive filmmaker than Krasinski would additionally show more interest in his ensemble: perhaps dig into flashbacks sporadically to get a sense of what they have left behind; have at least a few stretches of respite where characters can talk about something other than their up-to-the-minute circumstances. (A Quiet Place Part II does open with a remarkably realized foray into the past — a title card reads “Day 1,” to be exact — that excruciatingly dramatizes in tense long takes a picturesque day in the Abbotts’ small town suddenly consumed with bedlam when *something* seems to drop out of the sky. You almost wish, though, that several days before the apocalypse’s onset were dramatized, potentially intermixed in the current-day drama throughout the movie, to clue us into the Abbotts’ old lives in ways their present cannot easily make clear to us.)
Although no moment of the Abbott family’s current lives isn’t underlined with worries about survival, there must be some fleeting moments of joy — reasons, beyond simply not wanting to die, to keep trekking onward 474 days after a global nightmare materialized and then never left. But A Quiet Place Part II monotonously only shows periods of peak peril. Who the Abbotts are outside of these moments goes overlooked. This disinterest in character could be excused in the first movie. Under the auspices of it being a one-off film, it almost didn’t matter. Its premise was novel and well-executed, and we were happy to have our hearts quicken. But part two doesn’t accomplish much that the first movie didn’t already. There are just more characters and locales to work with, plus a couple of kid-centric action sequences that serve as looks at what leaving the nest looks like in this grim futureworld. (Last time, the character Krasinski played was the leader, and everyone else followed.)
We remain confident that Krasinski is a smart, sometimes ingenious horror director. He’s attentive to minute details that further bring us into this world. He subtly homes in on the sharpness of everyday sounds — footsteps, crinkling bags, clanging bottles — to keep us on edge in this apocalyptic context. He frequently surveys abandoned environments for items of left-behind clothing (like a line of stiletto heels that had been presumably worn by a group of girlfriends waiting at a train stop) in various vacant locations to remind us of death’s ghastly suddenness in this world. And his cameras zoom in constantly on the dried blood and chafed skin uglifying the feet of the Abbott family, which always travels shoes-less to avoid noise-making. Pain is inescapable; Krasinski has some tricks to make you feel it.
More than once, A Quiet Place Part II has characters split up for reasons I’d call misguided. (With a film like this it’s required you get yourself in trouble all the time.) Krasinski cleverly — and with impressive fluidity — makes it so that each subplot, which we take turns checking in on, matches the other threat-wise. The encroaching doom and climaxes line up seamlessly across them; when we’re cutting to and from, say, three narrative threads, our heartbeats don’t have to adjust themselves between each. But what Krasinski can do beyond generating suspense with a remarkable awareness of small touches and editing-room care remains scarcely proven. The movie ends, annoyingly, on a cliffhanger. When considering Part III, it’s not what happens to the characters that I’m most curious about — it’s whether Part III will at all invest more personal time into the people we’re journeying alongside, or if it will show, again, a limitedness: a restrictive devotion to plot.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It: B-
A Quiet Place Part II: B-