THE CONJURING 3: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT. When The Exorcist (1977) aired on television in 1980, I watched it from the cracked pleather recliner I was still small enough to share with my grandmother, who loved supernatural horror and evidently didn't put much stock in movie ratings. It was even more terrifying than the hauntings and vampires that were our usual fare, but it wasn't until I saw it again as a teenager, after her death, that I began to feel its emotional weight. It was still scary but there was also guilt, worry, grief for a lost mother and the helplessness of watching someone you love suffer beyond your grasp. Possession was once — and in places still is — an explanation for mental illness, disease and addiction, among other things. Even now it makes for cathartic fantasy — the sort in which nightmarish loss of control and self can be undone with faith and love.
The universe of The Conjuring (2013) draws on the apocryphal real-life exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren (self-proclaimed demonologist and medium, respectively), who investigated hauntings and possessions together. Horror writer and director James Wan has spun them into a web of films to rival Marvel's: a trio of Conjuring movies, the spinoff Annabelle (2014) with its own prequel and sequel, The Nun (2018) and The Curse of La Llorona (2019), another spinoff with Raymond Cruz as maybe my favorite deadpan priest ever. It's already a lot to catch up on for late starters and at least two more are in the works.
In the latest installment, we start with Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) trying to wrest 8-year-old David (Julian Hilliard) from the clutches of a malevolent presence that has him twisting impossibly and nearly killing Ed with a heart attack. During the attempted exorcism, said spirit jumps into Arne (Ruairi O'Connor), the boyfriend of David's sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook). Soon enough, a gaunt Arne is driven by hallucinations to commit murder, for which he's arrested and awaiting trial. Dinner with the Warrens and a tour of their souvenir collection (who keeps this shit?) are enough to emotionally scar his attorney and convince her to try a demonic possession defense. To gather supporting evidence, the Warrens do some supernatural detective work — searching for a missing student, reading up on Satanic rituals, consulting a retired exorcist (John Noble) — to root out the source of what appears to be a curse.
With a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and story by Wan, director Michael Chaves, who helmed La Llorona, carries on the canonical tone of creeping dread punctuated by sudden scares, blinding light against shadow, simple but awful apparitions and a focus on the visceral power of sharp objects, sweat and filth. Add to that an unflinching reproduction of 1981 sets (harvest gold appliances!) and costuming that includes a collection of belts, prairie blouses and long skirts that will challenge even stalwart vintage fashion enthusiasts. (Gen Z, heed my warning: These pleated trousers are cursed.) The only break in atmosphere is a flashback to the Warren's chaste teen courtship, which is all Nicholas Sparks lighting and gazebos.
The supporting cast is solid enough, if a little forgettable, but the effortlessly weird Noble is a treat. But the heart of the movie is the bond between the Warrens, which Farmiga and Wilson play with the same understatement as Lorraine's clairvoyance. Instead of the usual chemistry, what we feel is their worry, their mutual protectiveness, whether over Ed's physical frailty or Lorraine's vulnerability when connecting to the dead and demonic, and their unquestioned shared purpose. The Warrens don't anchor themselves in God or the Catholic Church (whose own horrors are absent here) so much as each other. In at least this branch of The Conjuring's universe, a crucifix, a rosary and a Bible passage can hold evil back a moment, but it's the bond between this couple that pulls the possessed back from the edge. R. 112M. BROADWAY, HBO MAX, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.