When I was a kid, the aisles of Blockbuster felt like the various holiday trees in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Each one was a portal to an aesthetically different world. The horror section stood out with its magnetically macabre imagery. With the Universal Pictures monster movies of the 1930s and ’40s stacked together at one end of the aisle and the ’80s and ’90s slasher flicks at the other, it provided the first taste of the “cinematic universes” we’re so hungry for today.
Blockbuster horror franchises feel different now. While the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street films tried to throw us off guard by sending their suburban bogeymen to space and Hollywood, respectively, today’s tentpole horror films seemingly aim to feel warmly familiar. Leaning more toward adventure than horror, the sequels to The Conjuring and It are team-based spectacles — almost wanting to be in the same vein as The Avengers or Justice League.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It feels safe and predictable right off the bat, as it opens with ghost-busting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) conducting yet another exorcism. Chaotic, visually incoherent and loud, the opening scene plays out more like a battle with a DC poop monster than anything in The Exorcist.
The poop monster here is actually a kid named David (Julian Hilliard). He’s possessed by a demon that his future brother-in-law, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), eventually invites into his own body to save David. Under the demon’s spell, Arne commits a horrible crime. With the help of the Warrens, he goes to trial in what was actually the first American murder case wherein the defendant claimed demonic possession as the cause of the crime.
Writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) and director Michael Chaves (who previously dabbled in the Conjureverse with The Curse of La Llorona) never make you feel the tragic weight of the true story behind the film. It merely serves as a backdrop for a carnival ride full of frights. And O’Connor plays Arne with a kind of Boy Scout innocence that sucks the suspense out of the story. Like the Warrens themselves, the film is all about good vs. evil and love conquering all. It has a Spielbergian warmth rather than a chill of dread.
It: Chapter Two has a similar vibe. It opens with a heinous tragedy grounded in some reality, but it ends with lovable people fighting off a giant spider creature. It’s as if horror films are softening their edges to fit in with crowd-pleasing superhero movies and other team adventure films. That’s not a knock on popular popcorn action fare. It’s just awkward to see a brutal, fact-based horror story like The Devil Made Me Do It aiming to be “summer fun at the movies.” This is the kind of horror film that should send you out into the night with shivers rather than a smile. In other words, it’s OK for cinematic horror universes to stay dark while others strive toward the light. If Blockbuster stores were still around today, I’d want the horror section to still stick out from the other aisles.
The Devil Made Me Do It is the third entry in the “main set” of Conjuring films, which have spawned a cinematic universe featuring five spinoffs, three of which revolve around the evil doll Annabelle. The Conjuring (2013) was a refreshing return to classic horror in the spirit of The Haunting (1963) and The Exorcist. But now, this series — the second highest-grossing horror franchise next to Godzilla — feels tired. Perhaps it’s time for the Warrens to put their Bibles down and give paranormal activity a rest.