Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren holding up a cross in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

As horrific and scary as the first two Conjuring movies are, it’s interesting to note that both films lack body counts (not counting the ghosts, of course). They feature characters in hyper distress while dealing with otherworldly evil, but by the time everything is resolved everyone walks away alive and healthy. This, however, will not be the case in the upcoming The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. The paranormal investigation at the center of the upcoming feature specifically concerns a murder – one that the perpetrator says was committed as a result of demonic possession. The story involving a very real crime makes the three-quel stand out compared to its predecessors, and director Michael Chaves makes the argument that it in turn makes it the darkest chapter of the franchise yet.

It’s so dark, in fact, that it raised very real concerns for the filmmaker as he was embarking on the journey making it. I joined a pair of other journalists on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California this past week for a socially distanced interview with Chaves about The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and after getting the chance to preview the opening scene of the movie I asked about his approach to balancing the true story elements and the fantastical. He discussed the fact that the material required a special approach given the victim in the story, saying,

When I first got the script, of course, I was thrilled. It's Conjuring 3. I'm such a Conjuring fan. I was also nervous because if you look at the other cases, you look into the other Warren case files, there's no real victims. You can't actually point to someone who lost their life. And so I think with this there's always the marketing spin, like, 'This is the darkest Conjuring case ever.' But I think in all honesty it really is, because you are talking about a real murder and a real victim. And so going into it, even though I was really excited to deliver as a fan that same Conjuring experience, I think it also needed to be throttled with the reality.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It centers on the notorious story of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a man who was convicted of killing his landlord in the early 1980s and in court was the first known person in United States history to claim that he was innocent because he was possessed when the murder was committed. At the time, Arne was dating a young woman named Debbie Glatzel, and prior to the crime he was present at an exorcism for Debbie’s brother, David – which is when, he claims, the evil spirit entered his body. Ed and Lorraine Warren were both a part of David’s church-sanctioned demon removal, which is the scene that starts the new movie.

Comparing his version with the true story, Michael Chaves explained,

This is based on a real exorcism, this Catholic-approved exorcism. The Warrens were there, Arne Johnson was there, David Glatzel was exercised by these two Catholic priests – we just made it Father Gordon in our opening. And that kind of kicks off the events of the movie, and it does lead into the real story where Arne Johnson murdered his landlord, and he claimed demonic possession. He claims that this was the incident. This is the moment where he became possessed. It's a really dark case.

The new movie marks the fourth time that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have played Ed and Lorraine Warren (following The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle Comes Home), and the supporting cast includes Ruairi O'Connor as Arne Johnson, Sarah Catherine Hook as Debbie Glatzel, Julian Hilliard as David Glatzel, and Steve Coulter as Father Gordon (who has been featured in all of the Conjuring Universe movies with the Warrens).

Because the story involves a real life tragedy and someone losing their life, Michael Chaves felt a particular responsibility to respect the reality of the case, while still sculpting it as a fictional version of events and a paranormal horror movie. A certain balance had to be struck, and it was something that the filmmaker worked on with James Wan (who is both producing and co-developed the story) and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick. Said the director,

It's easy to talk about demons and the devil when you don't have real victims. In the beginning I was really struggling to grapple with that. It's like, 'How do you handle this? How do you handle such an extraordinary claim? And also how do you take the side of what really was a murder in real life?' I think as I got into the story there was a lot of extraordinary things about it, and things that you could say couldn't be explained. It was definitely something that I really wanted to balance as we went into it, and really tell a fair story – as much as you can when you're talking about demons and possessions.

At the end of the day fans surely won’t be able to take all of the events of the film at face value, and learning the truth about what really happened will require some extracurricular research – but Michael Chaves did tease that the movie’s treatment of the story is something that makes it special and stand out. Discussing the response that versions of The Conjuring 3 have received from test screenings, Chaves said,

I didn't want to just make it a true crime film. I think that that's actually where it excels, and I think what people really like about it is that it feels even more true crime than any of the other Conjuring films. I think that that flavor is really exciting and definitely a new step for the Warrens, but it was also something that there was the dark reality of it you had to juggle.

Following an unexpectedly long wait, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is now finally on a direct course towards release, and will be out in less than a month. Set to arrive in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously (just like all of the other films on Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate), the latest chapter from the Conjuring Universe will be available for your eyes and ears on June 4.

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