“It is the darkest Conjuring movie yet,” director Michael Chaves proclaims when we sit down to talk to him about the latest movie in the Conjuring universe, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. “I know that might sound like hyperbole, but I just showed the finished film to Vera [Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren] and her husband, and she agreed!”
There’s little doubt that this may well be the darkest Conjuring movie, as this installment is based on one of America’s most infamous murder cases, that of young Arne Johnson. It is the first known court case in the United States in which the defense sought to prove innocence based upon the defendant’s claim of demonic possession and denial of personal responsibility for the crime. A case in which the Warren’s testified for the defendant.
“It was the most controversial case the Warrens ever got involved with,” Chaves nods. “The details of the case are really extraordinary. The movie starts off with the exorcism of this young boy, David Glatzel. A lot of people do know of ‘the devil made me do it’ case, the Arne Johnson case, but they don’t know that it goes beyond that the Warrens being called in for this young boy who has become possessed by a demon.”
Indeed, the movie starts not on the apparent possession of Arne Johnson, but that of his young brother in law David Glatzel – a character also based on real life.
“The movie opens with this Catholic-approved exorcism of this eight year old boy, and it’s really harrowing,” Chaves explains. “We actually even have a recording of it, which we play over the end credits. My wife can’t even listen to it, she heard it once and she was like ‘that is so unsettling’. The exorcism of this young child goes horribly wrong and that basically sets into motion events for the film. I’m excited for people to see the very first scene with our exorcism because there are events in there which basically give you a sense of where the movie is going and the kind of the tragic trajectory of this story. But it’s also super fun, don’t get me wrong!”
The film (and the real life case) then goes on to a gruesome murder: “Arnie Johnson was accused of the murder of his girlfriend’s landlord, and he ultimately went to trial,” Peter Safran explains, who’s been a producer of the Conjuring films since its very first installment back in 2013. “It was the first trial in which the defence was ‘not guilty’ by reason of demonic possession.”
“There are very real life consequences here, with no disrespect to the other films or the other families involved in the first two Conjuring movies,” nods Patrick Wilson, who plays Ed Warren, one half of our favourite paranormal investigative duo. “Arne Johnson was on trial for killing a man. So that had real life consequences. It made headlines and was a very big deal in 1981. So automatically the story becomes more of a thriller. Why did he do it? Was he indeed possessed by the devil if so, how did that happen? Was anyone else involved? So it becomes a thriller as well as a horror movie. So it has a much different, darker feel than the first two.”
By basing the latest film on a wider court case rather than a paranormal event in one specific location means this is a very new situation for paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. It also means they’re let off the leash a little and are able to explore the world outside of a haunted house…
“When we decided to make another Conjuring movie we knew we wanted it to feel different than the first two,” says Safran. “The first two basically take place in one location, which is a haunted, possessed house. This one we wanted to really switch it up and send Ed and Lorraine on an investigation, so think a supernatural Seven or a supernatural Silence Of The Lambs. This has really thrust it out into the larger world on an investigation in a very different fashion than we’ve seen in the first two movies.”
“The first few Conjuring movies were much more contained,” Wilson agrees. “This is really about following clues and following the path. Both Ed and Lorraine, following their different clues to figure out what is going on because they are certainly a bit baffled at the beginning of the movie as to the causes of the supernatural events that are occurring.”
By sending the Warrens out into the world, we also see a new side of our favourite demon-busting couple. That of detectives in their own right, solving crimes along with the police. It also shows their individual talents, with Lorraine’s connection to the spirit world and Ed as the stalwart partner.
“They’re in the business of spiritual rescue work, and that rescue takes them beyond the haunted house, to determine the root of the problem,” explains Vera Farmiga who plays the conduit to the spiritual world, Lorraine Warren. “They leave the confines of the house that was consistent in [The Conjuring] one and two to fully be able to sever these connections and disconnect the dark connections. It sends them into the trenches, boots to the ground, trying to determine that. The detective work sort of comes with the criteria for demonology. You also get to see Lorraine tap into different aspects of her clairvoyancey, we see her investigate this crime by using other psychic abilities that we haven’t quite seen yet in the first two Conjuring films. It’s not only clairvoyance and telepathy but remote viewing and pre-cognition and psychometry all these other aspects to her gift.”
“They go deeper and darker in the story, trying to find out why this happened,” Wilson adds. “I think one of the things that’s fascinating is, we’ve dealt with exorcisms before, we’ve dealt with possession [but] this is a totally different beast. Quite literally a totally different beast. It gets deeper and deeper so the end seems so far away, they cannot figure out where the end is. I think that’s what the struggle is, trying to find the end result to something that may not have an ending is a part of this very dark journey.”
This latest installment has also taken the Warrens firmly out of their previous Seventies setting and into the Eighties, a decade which brings its own unique problems: “In the early Eighties, there was this string of satanic murders, all disconnected or, you know, possibly connected, but that’s for other people to determine that,” Chaves winks. “These murder cases where people would claim demonic possession or they would claim that the devil speaking through dogs made them murder people. It was a really unique period of time, and that phrase, ‘the devil made me do it’ I think for a lot of people is really an electrically charged phrase.”
An integral element of the case is the young man on trial, Arne Johnson played by actor Ruairi O’Connor, who wasn’t overly familiar with the cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren… “I’ve never actually watched any Conjuring films,” he laughs. “I thought I had. I’d seen Insidious and actually spent a lot of time on set referencing Insidious to Patrick Wilson!
“It’s a very different role to what I was expecting,” he continues. “I have scenes where I have to perform what are basically mental breakdowns. They are really, really taxing and Michael Chaves put a lot of care and respect for me in that.”
It is certainly a role that demanded a lot of physicality from the actor: “Arne is mentally suffering as he’s possessed and there’s a lot of physical ramifications that go along with that. We had to creatively find ways to make my body suffer. Some of them are stupid, just gulping down air as if I was trying to make myself burp, and gulping down so much air that my insides would be in agony. I’d feel completely nauseous.
“If you’re thrashing about in the bed (which I do [in the film], I have seizures and fits), they can’t just be general, it needs to be a reaction to something and I had to take some very dark things from my own life and try to channel them through. I’d come home from the set just destroyed in ways I never thought anyone could ever be destroyed. Mentally exhausted, physically sore, but it was so much fun on the other hand.”
The fact that this, like all of the Warrens’ cases within the Conjuring films, is based on real life only adds to its terrifying appeal: “I know that I, as an audience member, am always drawn to things that I know are based on a true story,” Safran reveals. “There’s something about it that makes it even more extraordinary. It’s far scarier for the audience watching and thinking that this, or at least parts of this, really happened. It makes it much more personal. You leave the theatre like ‘oh my god, some of these events really happened’ and if it happened to them it could happen to me. So I think the personalisation of it really sinks its hooks into the audience. From my perspective, it makes it much scarier and the fact that Ed and Lorraine are real people who have this real relationship and the real experience of supernatural and paranormal investigation for all these years, that grounding just makes it far more scary.”
Those real life supernatural experiences have even followed the cast and crew to the set: “Vera speaks really richly about her paranormal experiences she had during filming of The Conjuring and that the set would always be blessed by priests, both before and after filming,” O’Connor reveals. “Stuff that we can’t find the scientific basis for, it really helps you find the characters. Even if you know it’s playing with the truth, just seeing it’s based on a true story makes you go ‘oh wow’. It was [also] a real life romance between Ed and Lorraine, and Patrick and Vera just effortlessly bring that into the film. They have a real chemistry with each other. They’re very good friends and you can really see that.”
Speaking of which, the central relationship to all three of the Conjuring films has been the marriage of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a real beating heart that just adds to the films’ appeal: “I think the most successful horror films are the ones that have great characters,” Safran tells us. “Whether it’s The Exorcist or The Omen or The Conjuring or the IT movies, it really comes down to great characters that filmmakers create and bring to the screen. That’s kind of been the magic of the Conjuring movies; it’s all rooted in Ed and Lorraine Warren and how Patrick and Vera play them. People come along and I think people would watch a pure drama just of Ed and Lorraine as portrayed by Vera and Patrick, because you really care about the characters, you care about their relationship, and you care about how they protect it.”
“It’s always the thing that I love about this,” Farmiga adds. “This franchise is actually healthy for you. To submit to love, it teaches us to yield to love. Ed and Lorraine are a beautiful example that love always wins in the end. It always wins no matter the weight or the intent of the hatred, and that’s a beautiful parable.”
“I think we’ve always dealt with the Conjuring movies as a love story, disguised as a supernatural thriller,” Safran agrees. “I think people will respond to that relationship between Ed and Lorraine, and they want to come back for more to see what they’re doing.”
Indeed, when the first movie launched back in 2013 it grossed a whopping worldwide total of $319.5 million against a budget of $20 million. After glowing critical response and a plethora of awards, audiences are still keen to see more of Ed and Lorraine and their paranormal cases. It’s an appeal that’s lasted eight years, created numerous spin-offs, and doesn’t seem to be waning any time soon.
“I think if I can look at it objectively like a franchise, I can’t think of another horror franchise where you follow the heroes and not the villains,” Wilson says of the series’ longevity. “So you know that you’re going to get a new case, a new subject, a new villain, a new demon, but at what cost to Ed and Lorraine? Both of them have had these experiences in these films with their own real life consequences, whether it’s the stress to themselves in their own health, or their marriage, or their family, their loved ones. So it really is the perfect formula for wanting to keep coming back because you know you’re going to get a whole new storyline, but you’re going to get familiar characters in that storyline and that’s something that you really don’t see in a horror franchise.”
Indeed, characters and story aside, the Conjuring films are horror movies and with that comes a whole new bunch of scares, so what can we (not) look forward to in the latest installment?
“One of my favourite scares has to do with a manifestation of a demon that is specifically curated for Patrick Wilson,” Farmiga says to Patrick. “One of my favourite moments in the film is your face with your beautiful profile, looking over at me and it’s what you say to me as this thing is about to attack. It’s one of my favourite faces you have ever made!”
“I only have like four of them!” he responds.
“Well this is the fifth introduction,” she laughs.
“We really pride ourselves on crafting original and surprising scare sequences,” Safran adds. “One of the things that I love most about Michael Chaves, is that this is a natural skill for him. He did it in The Curse Of La Llorona, a horror film that got him his start, but he really just inherently – like James Wan – sees the escalation of these sequences where you build beat upon beat upon beat that escalates into some really great scare. I think that the audience is going to love the different feel that this film has from the prior ones, but they are going to get those scares that will absolutely have them shitting themselves!”
“James [Wan] and myself wanted this film to be an expansion of the universe,” Chaves concludes. “Up to this point, the Conjuring movies have been really successful variations on the haunted house genre, and when I first started talking to James about this, he was like ‘we’re gonna blow off the doors to the haunted house, you’re going to take the Warrens out into the world, and we’re going to take that Conjuring experience into places that we’ve never seen’. So there are still what has become defined as ‘The Conjuring scare’ [but] at the same time there are sequences and experiences that really push it further.
“I think what’s really exciting about the film is defying what you expect from a Conjuring film, breaking the format,” he says. “I’m excited for people to experience a Conjuring film like they’ve never seen before. To experience the mystery that we have. I think it’s just really a dark wild ride and I’m really excited for people to see it.”
Well we’re really excited to watch it! And we can all do so on 28 May when The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It arrives in cinemas…