Movie Review ~ The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren fight for the soul of a young boy, taking them beyond anything they’d ever seen before and marking the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Who ever could have imagined that a scare masterpiece as impressive as 2013’s The Conjuring could have created two such unlikely super(natural)heroes like Ed and Lorraine Warren?  Nearly a decade later, the God-fearing duo based on the real-life paranormal investigators have appeared in five movies set within The Conjuring Universe, successfully kicking off a cottage industry of scares that could expand as large as their filing cabinet of cases will allow.  Going from the academic demonologists called in by a family living in a house of horrors of the first film to the ghost hunting detectives pursued by demons and the occult in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Warrens could very well be the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the horror landscape.

It’s been five years since the Warrens have had a proper film and some changes have been made during that time.  For starters, James Wan (Insidious) took a step back from the director’s seat, allowing The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves to take over and continue the franchise flagship Wan started. The Conjuring 2 screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) is back but wisely steps away from detailing another haunted house case after the overstuffed sequel from 2016 incorporated Amityville and the Enfield poltergeist — too much of a good thing.  There’s also an interesting decision to ever-so slightly side-step events for the Warrens in The Nun as well as Annabelle Comes Home, which should be called Annabelle Comes A-Conjurin’ since it is all about the Warrens and their youngest child, played there by McKenna Grace and not Sterling Jerins who has the role in all three Conjuring films. 

That brings us to the newest film, set in 1981 which pits the Warrens up against a demon that first appears in the body of a little boy during the rattling prologue and then in Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), his sister’s boyfriend, after the young man foolishly welcomes the entity in as a last ditch effort to save the tormented child.  During this climactic switcheroo, Ed (Patrick Wilson, Midway) suffers a health scare and is sidelined and unresponsive for a stretch.  This allows for enough time to pass that Arne and his girlfriend Diane (Sarah Catherine Hook, Monsterland) can get back to their normal life working for a dog kennel alongside its drunk proprietor. 

As Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, The Commuter) stands vigil for her ailing husband, Arne begins to exhibit strange visions and feels a presence not just near him but within him.  As this evil gets closer and deeper, the line between what is real to Arne and what is imagined get blurred.  Then, just as Ed is waking but before the Warrens can reach out with a warning, something takes over Arne and he winds up in jail for murder.  On trial and facing capital punishment if convicted, he seeks help from the Warrens to prove his demonic possession defense, the first of its kind.  Feeling responsible not just for the murder but the original botched exorcism that helped the demon find Arne, Ed and Lorraine launch their own investigation into the case to discover how the monster found its way into the initial host to begin with.  What they uncover involves more dead bodies, witch’s curses, human sacrifice, lots of candles, and the kind of sleuthing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scooby-Doo mystery.

Don’t read that last statement as a dig at the screenplay from Johnson-McGoldrick.  The story that Wan provided feels like the sequel that should have come after the first film, one that truly gives the Warrens room to grow a bit more.  Whereas The Conjuring 2 was more about the traditional “bigger” sequel gains (don’t forget about that head-scratching long pause for Wilson to strum a guitar and sing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’) it didn’t move any pieces forward in as significant a way as they are here.  True, there are far more liberties taken with the story than anyone would care to admit, but the fabricated storyline pairs nicely with the real-life tale of Arne Johnson’s case.

There’s also something sort of fun about watching Wilson and Farmiga, both pushing 50, awkwardly snooping around like these types of academics-first would.  While both could easily pull off a lead in an action film, neither turn the Warrens into warriors once they launch into action.  Ed still gets winded after his illness and walks with a cane and Lorraine always wears the loudest and frilliest of blouses, boxiest of pants, and most modest of skirts.  (Side note: there are a few outfits Farmiga dons that I swear are meant to test the audience’s laugh response…but darn it if Farmiga doesn’t wear the absolute heck out of them!)  Wilson has gotten used to playing second banana in most films and that’s his sweet spot, he’s that person and he excels at it.  To try to grasp for something more would feel like he’s taking more than he needs, and Farmiga definitely doesn’t need his help commanding the screen. Arguably the central focus of all the films in one way or another, Farmiga’s character always runs the risk of coming off as insincere because she’s always so sure of herself and her intuitiveness but it’s only an actress of Farmiga’s caliber that can carry off this type of material and not have it feel goopy.

It’s nice to see carryover characters from previous films and viewers with keen eyes will spot a few familiar trinkets along the way, not to mention deep cut callbacks to preceding movies if you want to take the time to connect those dots.  Often in these mystery-oriented films I tend to find them less interesting the more we find out answers but The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It managed to get more engaging as it went along.  Helping this is Chaves who keeps the film tight and taut by not repeating the scares in similar scenes ad nauseum.  Instead of having large set-pieces that present some looming terror for the Warrens (and the audience) as they move through it (think the water-logged basement in the sequel), Chaves prefers to unleash his scares without much advance warning.  This makes for an exciting watch that’s rarely, if ever, boring, or slow.

I know the film had a post-credit scene that was removed, rumored to set the stage for additional cases to be opened.  Taking this out is a strange move to make considering the number of cases the Warrens were involved with that have yet to be told.  Even if the filmmakers wanted to make The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It the end of an unofficial (now official?) trilogy, there is still room to leave the door ajar, if not fully open.  While the movie has a satisfying ending, it does feel like something is missing…like a breath was taken but never exhaled. 

Movie Review ~ The Curse of La Llorona

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker and her own small kids are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm.

Stars: Linda Cardellini, Patricia Velasquez, Raymond Cruz, Sean Patrick Thomas, Marisol Ramirez, Madeleine McGraw

Director: Michael Chaves

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Loosen your belts, good audience members, because The Conjuring Universe continues to expand at a rapid rate. The Conjuring sent moviegoers screaming in 2013 and it wasn’t long before we had a decent sequel and spin-offs including 2014’s Annabelle (and its 2017 far superior follow-up Annabelle: Creation) and 2018’s The Nun. Now, hot on the heels of the new release The Curse of La Llorona, is Annabelle Comes Home, arriving in just a few months. What began as unexpectedly frightening solid shocker stand-alone film has grown into a cottage industry franchise of fear. The question is, in a saturated market of theatrical releases, movies on demand, and streaming originals, can the filmmakers behind these horror flicks continue to introduce interesting characters that make future sequels of interest?

While The Curse of La Llorona ultimately fares better than The Nun (partly because it manages to make it to the finish line making some modicum of sense), the cracks are starting to show in The Conjuring Universe and it’s time for some originality to be brought back into the mix. The film is efficient, well-made, and delivers the requisite scares to give the audiences a jolt every five minutes (sometimes less) but it doesn’t captivate you like truly memorable horror films should. Like a late night trip to Taco Bell, it gets the job done but isn’t all that good for you.

A short prologue set in idyllic 17th century Mexico introduces us to a mother (Marisol Ramirez, Circle) who suddenly drowns her young sons for no apparent reason. Flash forward to 1973 Los Angeles and the story picks up with widowed social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini, Green Book) making a house call to Patricia (Patricia Alvarez, The Mummy) who has two boys that haven’t shown up to school lately. Finding the mother out of sorts (to put it mildly) and the boys locked in a closet, Anna steps in and places the boys in protective care while their mother gets the help she needs.

Unfortunately, the moment Anna opens that closet door she becomes part of a curse that affects everyone around her, including her children Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen). She’s incurred the wrath of La Llorona, a vengeful spirit doomed to roam the earth searching for children to replace the two she murdered. Stemming from Mexican folklore, La Llorona is used as a way for parents to scare their children into following the straight and narrow. “You better be good or La Llorona will come and get you!” Now, this spirit has her sights set on Anna’s children and will stop at nothing to make them her own.

Working from a script by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis (also represented currently in theaters with Five Feet Apart), director Michael Chaves (who is signed up to direct The Conjuring 3) doesn’t bring the same kind of flashy élan to the frights like other directors in The Conjuring Universe but what he does have is a good sense of rhythm in keeping the scares coming at a good pace. True, most of the frights are forced into your body because they’re accompanied with a loud noise that you can’t help but tense up at but there are a few nice shocks delivered just after the hairs on the back of your neck have been raised to full attention.

Daughtry and Iaconis unfortunately dumb down Anna and her kids into people that experience something they can’t explain and choose not to tell anyone else. All three of them are living in the same house and they can’t share they are all seeing the same ghostly apparition of a creepy lady in a white dress? To their credit, Cardellini and the children make a believable family unit, one that is still grieving over the loss of their father, which is one of several plot points never fully explored. There are attempts to link the movie to the original Annabelle film but aside from that brief glimpse of the creepy doll in a flashback this is largely a property unto itself.  Several characters are also introduced and you think they’re going to play a major role…but we wind up never seeing them again.

If there’s one thing I can say that I’ve enjoyed about these films in The Conjuring Universe it’s that they’ve all been set in the past. This removes the advances of technology as a way to help our terrorized family and prevents them from roaming the internet for ways to escape the ghoul preying on them. In The Curse of La Llorona, the lack of outside assistance/knowledge brings about the introduction of a shaman (Raymond Cruz), a sort of a stone-faced wise-cracking urban exorcist. Cruz’s character may bring some comic relief to the proceedings but his once-holy man seems to come from another movie entirely.

At a scant 93 minutes, The Curse of La Llorona doesn’t overstay its welcome and my audience seemed to have a dandy of a time screaming along with the movie. The scares are modestly commendable when they are doled out with precision and less successful when things just pop into frame along with a loud sting of music. I saw this in IMAX and should have brought earplugs. I’m sure the movie will do the kind of business that will encourage the people behind this franchise to keep going – I just ask that they take a little more time to think things through in future entries. If they want to make this a true universe, they should also be attempting to connect their films more than just having random props from other movies pop up.  I mean, the doll from Annabelle also appeared in Aquaman and Shazam!…do they belong in The Conjuring Universe too?

31 Days to Scare ~ The Curse of La Llorona (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker and her own small kids are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm.

Release Date: April 19, 2019

Thoughts: It appears that director James Wan is creating his own cottage industry (not to mention an expanding horror universe) in horror films like The Curse of La Llorona. Wan was behind The Conjuring and all it’s various off shoots (most recently represented with the box office smash The Nun) which have been gigantically profitable even though they were made for very little. After going outside his neighborhood for Lights Out he returns with this spooky tale based on a story from Mexican folklore. This first teaser has some spiffy moments in it while not giving away so much (take a page from the Warner Brothers marketing team, Halloween) that further scares will be spoiled.