The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It hopes to shake up the Conjuring formula. The dependable, familiar Ed and Lorraine Warren will be back, once again played by the dependable, familiar Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. But the two previous main Conjuring movies end with Ed and Lorraine banishing evil via some ritual exorcism, while The Devil Made Me Do It flips things upside down and gives us an exorcism upfront. And while that might be where the story usually ends, for Ed and Lorraine it’s just beginning.
I got to watch the first 11 minutes of The Devil Made Me Do It, and talk with the film’s director Michael Chaves about changing things up for a big-budget thrill-ride of a movie while also dealing with the tricky situation of the real-life murder that inspired the film.
“The design of this is to take The Conjuring and the Warrens into a place they’ve never gone before, into a direction we’ve never seen,” Michael Chaves said before he played the opening scene of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. What followed was an exorcism sequence that isn’t shy about tipping its hat to the granddaddy of exorcism movies, The Exorcist. There’s even a moment where a priest steps out of a cab and stands, shrouded in darkness, looking up at a house. It’s a moment deliberately meant to recall the now-iconic scene of Max von Sydow arriving for the conclusion of William Friedkin’s horror classic, and Chaves is either bold or courting ridicule to include it here. But he has no regrets.
“I think The Conjuring movies are always these love letters to horror movies and to horror cinema,” Chaves said. “You look at the first one and you can see so much of The Changling in it. And I think it does that with great love. And [the Devil Made Me Do It opening scene] was, without a doubt, a shameless Exorcist reference. You know, it’s funny because I was on the verge of cutting it out. I was like, ‘You know what, it’s too much on the nose.’ People are going to be like, ‘You’re just shamelessly stealing from the greatest movie of all time.’ But I kept it, and I was glad I did because when we started screening it, people loved being able to see those references and make those connections.”
From there, the opening moments unveil the exorcism of a demonically possessed child named David Glatzel, played by Julian Hilliard. Not only is a priest present for this exorcism, but so are the boy’s family, and our trusty heroes Ed and Lorraine Warren. But while the Warrens usually triumph over evil in moments like this, this exorcism doesn’t go so smoothly. Even after all the sound and fury, and rituals, and prayers, and nasty-looking body twisting – which was achieved with a real contortionist, Chaves said, not CGI – the demon still clings to the boy. That’s where Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) comes in.
Arne is dating David’s older sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), and he’s present at the exorcism, too. Desperate to help, he grabs hold of the possessed boy and demands the demon take him instead – another Exorcist callback, of course. Witnessing all this, Ed Warren is understandably perturbed, but he’s not able to intervene in time. The demon seems to finally flee the boy, but now the Warrens are going to have a whole new problem on their hands.
“We’ve seen the Warrens go on these adventures before, and there’s the expectation that they’re going to face the demon,” Chaves said. “They’re going to exorcise that demon by the end of the movie. And from the very beginning, we were like, ‘Let’s just turn that whole idea on its head.’ Let’s start with that. Start with the thing that you think the movie is going to end with and then have it go horribly wrong. Because there’s also that expectation that the Warrens – they’re the good guys, and they always get it right. And they always save the day. And the [opening scene gives us the] idea that it doesn’t always happen that way, and that’s not the way life is. And what happens when they get it wrong? What happens when it goes wrong? And that’s how we wanted to start the movie.”
Here is the part of this story where I tell you all of this really happened. Well…sort of. All of the Conjuring films so far have boasted that they were “based on true events,” and that’s often partially true. The Warrens were real paranormal investigators and claimed to have worked on countless disturbing cases. And sure enough, the exorcism of David Glatzel happened, and Chaves even included actual audio of that exorcism over the film’s end credits – and he played it for the cast, too.
“We played the audio for the cast before we did the exorcism; we played it in that room [where the scene was shot] just to kind of get a sense of the reality of it,” Chaves said. “And as much as we want to make this big studio terrifying horror movie, we also want to capture what was real about it, and really understand what was real about it – even if it’s just through listening to the audio. So we played it in the room and…it was something where it was just this shared experience, where you’re sitting around with the people, [and] we’re recreating this moment. And you’re looking at everybody, and listening to this recording about what happened, and it’s really unsettling. You really are like, ‘This was real and this family went through this, and this boy went through this.’ [And] I think everybody kind of the temperature in the room just dropped when it played.”
An exorcism is one thing, but The Devil Made Me Do It has more in store than just that. And that’s where things get a little tricky and potentially tasteless. In the previous Conjuring films, the cases primarily concern ghosts, with a little demonic action thrown in for good measure. And while those movies involve characters being flung around and scared out of their wits, they almost always come out the other side safe and sound. There’s no body count.
But The Devil Made Me Do It is a completely different matter. Because Arne Johnson is a real person who really claimed that a demon that was possessing young David jumped out of the boy and into him. And what followed was much more disturbing than a horror movie. Several months after the exorcism, Johnson stabbed his landlord Alan Bono to death with a pocket knife. And things only got stranger from there – when he went to trial for the crime, Johnson’s defense team argued that their client was innocent of the murder due to demonic possession. As the official synopsis for The Devil Made Me Do It states, this was “the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.”
And that presents an unusual issue for The Devil Made Me Do It. While the other main Conjuring films can play fast and loose with the facts and not worry about offending anyone, this third entry in the main series involves an actual murder. As much as I love these movies, I have to admit it didn’t exactly sit easy with me, and I specifically asked Chaves how the film intended to balance the act of a real-life tragedy with the fun horror movie thrills we’ve come to expect from this series. Chaves gave me a very lengthy, very detailed answer.
“This actually started with a real Catholic-approved exorcism that [Arne Johnson] was witness to, and the Warrens were witness to,” the filmmaker began. “And he claimed that he became possessed at this event, and he went on a few weeks later to murder his landlord. Now, this went to trial and he claimed demonic possession as his defense. And the Warrens knew him, and they came to his side in this. Up to this point, every case that we’ve seen every time [that] has been brought to the screen, [there are] no real victims. The Warrens can walk away and the demons been cleared, and that question of what you believe, it can really take a back seat because it’s like, ‘Hey, that was a fun thrill ride!’ And no one was hurt during the process of it. And we can enjoy that.”
“When I got that script and I started reading it for the first time, as elated and out-of-my-mind-excited [as I was] to do this movie, I was also conflicted by the fact that there’s a real victim in this. There’s a man who lost his life and we’re not even telling [the story] from that point of view,” Chaves continued. “We’re telling it from the point of view of the man who claimed to be possessed, the man who took his life – the murderer. And from the very beginning, I was like, ‘I hope I get this right. And I hope I tell that story fairly.’ Because I don’t think you can downplay that at all. And if you look on Wikipedia you can see how this trial turned out, and you can see what actually happened. And ultimately, [Johnson] never denied murdering [Alan Bono], and justice ultimately was served. He went to jail and he served his time. And that was also one of the things that I definitely wanted to show in the film, that wherever you stand on this, whatever your belief is, our courts worked, our system worked and justice was served.”
Chaves concluded: “Ultimately, this is a Conjuring film, and this is the story of the Warrens, and their experience, and their journey. And they believed this happened, and they believed in Arne Johnson. So they put their careers on the line, and they went to trial and they testified for him. There are always stories about faith. And usually [they are] stories about our faith in God, or the characters’ faith in God. And [this story] is much more about the faith we put in other people. Just like his girlfriend at the time, Debbie Glatzel, who is the sister to David Glatzel, the kid who got exorcised. She was there at the murder and she testified on his behalf. And she married him in jail, and she stayed with him her entire life. She believed him and she stuck by him. And when I was looking at this, I struggled to decide what I believe actually happened, but what I ultimately decided is my belief needs to take a back seat to their story. And ultimately it’s the story of their faith and the faith they put on each other.”
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It opens on June 4, 2021. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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