The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, review: a gory ‘true’ haunting that’s too mad to believe

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in a scene from the newest Conjuring film - Warner Bros
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in a scene from the newest Conjuring film - Warner Bros
  • Dir: Michael Chaves. Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Julian Hilliard, Shannon Kook, Sarah Catherine Hook. 15 cert, 112 mins

A taxi pulls up outside a suburban American home in evening fog. Out steps a silhouetted priest with hat and briefcase, here to do battle with the forces of evil. Inside, all hell is breaking loose. Invoked just minutes into the running time, The Exorcist isn’t the only horror classic to which the latest Conjuring sequel pays homage. There’s a supernatural twist on the Psycho shower scene, when the taps turn on by themselves, and blood sprays out. Later, Patrick Wilson’s paranormal investigator will fall foul of a hex, causing him to hobble around an underground labyrinth psychotically swinging a mallet. That’s right – the film is temporarily possessed by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, too.

The Conjuring is now an immensely profitable franchise, eight years old and eight films long, if you count The Nun, three Annabelles, and The Curse of La Llorona, all of which narratively intersect to some degree. Some have panned out better than others. The Devil Made Me Do It, which is officially The Conjuring III, nudges its way safely towards the top of the deck, even as that sense of familiarity creeps in.

The Devil may get all the best tunes, but their over-heavy rotation can give us the feeling we’ve been here and done that, and this series has always been content to stick Old Nick’s most famous bangers on shuffle.

Once again, fatigued sleuths Ed Warren (Wilson) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, in ruffled 1970s blouses) are at the centre of a real-life case, which (the film posits) consumed all their energies and nearly cost them their lives. This time, an 11-year-old called David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) is in the grip of an evil curse in 1981 Connecticut. (For tape recordings of the actual exorcism the Warrens oversaw, wait for the end credits.) As he’s writhing, leering and generally playing demonic Twister all over the Glatzels' living room, his sister’s boyfriend Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) intervenes by saying, “take me”.

A few months later, the real-life Arne stabbed his landlord more than 20 times with a pocket knife. On the advice of the Warrens, his lawyer entered a murder plea of "not guilty", citing the excuse of demonic possession. You can imagine the sidelong look the judge gave to his clerk. Historically, the “Devil made me do it” defence is unique in the US, but it has British precedents as a practically open-and-shut variation on the insanity plea.

For The Conjuring’s purposes, this courtroom gambit is carte blanche to assume that Arne’s the real victim here, while the Warrens sniff around for the secret source of the curse. Lorraine finds a black-magic totem in the crawlspace under the Glatzels’ house, and she and Ed visit a retired priest, Father Kastner (John Noble, clammy-faced and uneasy-making) to extract more clues. There’s a particularly scary scene in a mortuary, where Lorraine takes the hand of a rotting cadaver and gets visions of a Satanic altar nearby; meanwhile, an obese corpse comes to life and gruesomely molests her husband.

With franchise creator James Wan off on other assignments, La Llorona’s director, Michael Chaves, proves himself again to be a shrewd replacement, somehow inviting the viewer to buy into a frankly wacky screenplay by dint of decent acting and committed style. The contorted-limb effects are legitimately freaky; the sound and fury ramp up ruthlessly. Extra marks for managing to creep-ify the lyrics to Blondie’s “Call Me” in a way you’ll never see coming. Chaves is canny enough to drop sly winks for less credulous viewers that it doesn’t all have to be taken entirely seriously.

Supernatural legends have always been most useful as a handy springboard for whatever the genre wants to fling at us. When Wan and his producers opened the Warrens’ case-files back in 2013, it was a rich resource for justifying their series of games – they were guaranteed a steady supply of shudders if they kept one foot in the real world for emotional gravitas. Even if it’s now more of a big toe than a foot, that’ll do.

In cinemas on Friday