STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
The 2013 horror film "The Conjuring" made more than $300 million and spawned a blockbuster cinematic universe. The main "Conjuring" movies center on a pair of demon hunters who solve paranormal mysteries. In the new third "Conjuring" movie - it's called "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It" - our heroes try to figure out what compelled a young man to brutally kill his landlord. I'm Stephen Thompson. And today, we are talking about the new "Conjuring" movie on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. With us from her home in Maryland is NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
THOMPSON: So glad you could be here. Also joining us is NPR Arts Desk correspondent Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Thanks.
THOMPSON: It's great to have you here. So as I mentioned in the intro, "The Conjuring" franchise has spawned a bunch of spinoffs, including the massively successful "Annabelle" series. But the main "Conjuring" movies focus the most on heavily fictionalized accounts of two real-life people who really did investigate cases that they said involved demonic possessions. Their names, both in life and in "The Conjuring" movies, are Lorraine and Ed Warren. They're played in all of these films by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, respectively. The movies depict her as having powers of clairvoyance while he performs the occasional exorcism and whatnot. "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It" is set in 1981 and is based on a real-life case. Basically, Arne Johnson, played here by Ruairi O'Connor, stabbed his landlord to death and claimed demonic possession as his defense. The Warrens set out to prove that he was indeed possessed by demons and much horror ensues.
Ayesha, I'm going to start with you. What do you think of "The Conjuring" movies in general? And what did you think of "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It"?
RASCOE: OK. So I really like "The Conjuring" movies - "The Conjuring" movies. The other ancillary ones I don't know as much about, but the main "Conjuring" movies, I really liked. And back in 2013, when that first one came out and they had, like, the clapping thing - clap, clap - and then the ghost clapped back, I was like, oh my gosh, I got to go see this movie. Like, that was, like, right up my alley because I love, like, evil, malevolent ghosts. Like, if it's a movie and it's, like, the house is haunted and then, like, it ends and it's like, oh, the ghost just wanted to go home, I don't want to see that movie. I want, like, the ghost to be like, I wanted to kill you all. Those are the type of ghosts I like. I don't like happy ghosts. And so I was like...
RASCOE: And so when I saw the first one, it did not disappoint. Like, it had all the stuff. The second one I liked. I will say that I - this one, "The Devil Made Me Do It," I like this one better than the second one. So to me, this is, like, the third one if you look at it as a trilogy. And I think that third movies in these sorts of things can really solidify something, like the storytelling and stuff like that. Like, I think of, you know, "A Nightmare On Elm Street: Dream Warriors." That was the third one. I loved that. "Paranormal Activity 3" - a lot of people don't know this - that was a really good movie. I feel like this one is in that range. Like, it was solid, right? Is it classic? Is it going to haunt your nightmares forever? No. But it was solid. It was scary. It went some places I didn't expect. And once again, I have to let, you know, the POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR people know that there are things I don't like. I did like this one. Everything I've been on I say I like, but I liked this one. It was solid. It was a good movie.
One thing I will say about looking for satanists and stuff like that, it does ring a little bit different because we have this whole satanist QAnon thing going on right now. Like, we're in the midst of another satanist panic right now. That was a little annoying to me because I don't like when real life intrudes on my, you know, horror watching. So that - I will say that that was the only unfortunate thing about this one.
THOMPSON: Neda, how about you?
ULABY: I couldn't agree with Ayesha more. You know, that first "Conjuring" was just a revelation, Lili Taylor's best work to this day, happened when she was tied to a chair and under a blanket. That was a magnificent movie. I barely remember "The Conjuring 2," to be honest. There's been a lot of these kinds of movies. That one's kind of receded into the mists. This one, you know, did the trick, right? But it's also the kind of movie where people say things like, come with me, I have something to show you or there's got to be another way. You know, it's a little connect-the-dots. You know, we've got our exorcisms with the backbends. You know, we've kind of seen it all before. We've got a main character who looks like Norman Bates. The whole thing feels incredibly derivative, but it's a horror movie. That's kind of what we like about horror movies. So, you know, I don't know. I mean, I'm not big on grading movies. I actually kind of hate it when people do this. But this one just sort of screams B-plus, you know what I mean?
THOMPSON: So here's my issue with these things. Your first movie is basically kind of, I don't know, sort of "The Exorcist" meets "The Babadook." You know, it's a pretty contained, kind of haunting possession. It's within this haunted house, and it's largely a haunted house movie. And the only stuff in that movie that really didn't work for me was the portrayal of these ghost hunters. Your Ed and Lorraine - I thought all that stuff about their love, this great romance of theirs that will echo through the ages - I found it so boring and so tacked on. I didn't care about them at all.
The connective tissue for all of these movies is these two dopes. I get very frustrated when, like, historical dramas present people as heroes who were not heroes and present people as villains who were not villains. If you get tripped up by that sort of thing, these movies are not for you because the portrayals of these people are so - well, they're very disingenuous. And I found it very, very, very frustrating. And to me, like, just make the bed shake. Just make the critter pop up in the shadows. That is so much more interesting to me than the kind of framing device of these movies which bogs them down more and more as they go along.
ULABY: You know what's kind of the problem, I think? There's something very chilly about both of them. They both look like increasingly aging china dolls.
ULABY: And we're being asked to imagine this kind of warmth and this heat and this passion between them when what they bring to the screen that works is actually somewhat cold.
RASCOE: I have to say, I like the romance (laughter). I like it. I believe it. I guess I'm a sap. I believe it.
THOMPSON: I'm a sap.
RASCOE: But I don't know. I like their, like, connection. And, you know, the husband's always like, don't do it. Don't go so far, lady, into the dark, evil prism of your mind. And she's like, oh, I got to do it. Like, they seem really concerned about each other (laughter).
THOMPSON: And the thing is, I know that in this regard, I am an outlier with these movies. Every review that I have read of these movies has been like, the most important thing is the emotional connection, the undercurrent between these two people who have this incredible chemistry. I do not agree.
ULABY: I'm just having this vision of Nora Ephron directing one of the "Conjuring" movies.
ULABY: And I don't know, I think it might be better. I think that, you know, the problem is that the seeds are there. I think you're both right. But the directors of these movies are not adept at pulling out these kinds of, you know, emotional shades.
ULABY: And the actors, bless them, are doing their best, you know, especially with dialogue like, I'm afraid she's not going to be able to do it. I'm afraid she will.
ULABY: You know?
RASCOE: Yeah, that beat - I did see that coming a mile away.
ULABY: And, you know, Lorraine's ability to sniff things out sometimes works. Sometimes it doesn't. And it is sort of increasingly feeling all in the service of the script and not - it doesn't feel as genuine. It all felt a little forced this time around.
THOMPSON: Well, one thing that does stand out about this movie that I wanted to touch on - the first two "Conjuring" movies are directed by James Wan, who directed "Saw" and "Insidious," as well as some very big budget kind of tentpole movies like "Aquaman" and one of - he did "Furious 7" - major, major filmmaker. This one is directed by Michael Chaves, who did the "Conjuring" spinoff, "The Curse Of La Llorona." And a lot of the presentation, like the effects budget, is higher on this one. But did you feel like there was a drop-off in the way these movies were directed?
ULABY: No. Did you, Ayesha?
RASCOE: I didn't feel like there was a drop-off. I did feel like some of the jump scares were a little - like, they could have been better, especially when you think back to the first movie. Like, they were really innovative. I don't even know if that was just the storytelling more than the directing. Like I said, that clapping thing - that stays with you. But like, this - I felt like the jump scares were not as original as they could be. Like, I mean, at this point, you can really put some effort into this, and I don't know that they did.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I had the reaction that this felt a little bit slicker, but a little more soulless. And I also felt in general like - and you see this with sequels all the time, where, like, the original movie that everyone loves that is, like, the source material for all of these subsequent movies is always so small and so contained, and every sequel feels the need to make the world bigger and bigger and bigger. And we talk sometimes on this show about sequel bloat, you know, where the movies get longer and, like, they take the team and split them up and send them out in 12 different directions. This movie to me really had that feeling of, like, man, just stay in the haunted house. I don't need you to go off as detectives (laughter) out in the world.
RASCOE: (Laughter) It was - yeah, it's like courtroom drama.
RASCOE: It was a lot of stuff. But it also had some funny moments that I thought worked well, like, you know, when they're, like, at one point doing an exorcism, and the light starts flickering, and it's, like, bad wiring (laughter). No, it's not. No, it's not.
THOMPSON: Well, so we've all seen all three "Conjuring" movies. We have not all seen all eight movies in "The Conjuring" cinematic universe, but there are clearly going to be more of these things. These things make an absolute fortune. This franchise - the entire universe has made something like $2 billion at the box office. There are going to be more of these movies. Where do you guys want to see these movies go?
ULABY: Oh, Disciples of the Ram cult all the way.
ULABY: This was a plot point that just got dropped and could get picked up again very easily. I'm all about the Disciples of the Ram cult.
RASCOE: Yes, I want to see them looking for these bad actors who are on the side of the demons. Who are these people? Go looking for them.
ULABY: You know what would be amazing, Ayesha? You know the movie that I really want to see? Isn't it kind of bonkers, when you think about it, that there's never been a horror movie, I don't think, really, set in the White House?
RASCOE: Oh, yes.
ULABY: What if the White House was the haunted house? Wouldn't that be amazing?
RASCOE: See, oh, you're taking my book ideas now.
THOMPSON: Ayesha, I would read your book about a haunted...
ULABY: You would be the star. Like, you would be, like, a reporter who's covering all the bad ghosts.
RASCOE: And it wouldn't be in this movie. I'll give away another free idea 'cause I don't know that I'll have time to do it. But all of the exorcisms that ever happen in these movies - they're always done by Catholic priests, which makes sense because I understand, they're in the Catholic Church. But I think there needs to be an exorcism done by a Black Pentecostal preacher. As a Black Pentecostal churchgoer, like, these movies speak to me in a way, but they're always - I think you should have...
THOMPSON: They're so Catholic.
RASCOE: You could have a - believe me, you could have some Black church mothers in there pleading the blood against these demons, and it would be amazing. No one has done it. I'm giving free jewels here. I'm giving free jewels.
THOMPSON: Man, Ayesha, I would absolutely watch that movie, if only because it would take the emphasis off of these two bozos.
THOMPSON: Really, where I want this franchise to go is exactly where it is never going to go (laughter). I will absolutely not get that, which - I will say, one thing that I like about these movies that sometimes bothers me about other modern horror movies - they are not sadistic. They are not kind of vicious in their violence. They have, like, almost a PG-13 quality to them that I, as somebody who doesn't necessarily want to watch torture porn - I did appreciate that.
RASCOE: Yeah, no, I absolutely agree with that. So I love horror, but I don't actually like to see people get killed. Like, I don't - like, that's not something that I like. I could watch a whole horror movie where no one gets killed. I'm fine with that. Like, that's not what I like. You know, it's kind of the cost of admission for most horror movies, but I'm fine without seeing a whole bunch of, like, gory, bloody deaths.
ULABY: Terrible things do happen to a waterbed in this movie, though.
ULABY: It should be noted.
RASCOE: Oh, that was one of my notes. Why would you make waterbeds scary? I love waterbeds.
ULABY: This is just another really familiar '80s horror trope, right?
RASCOE: That is true.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I was going to say that was very "Nightmare On Elm Street."
RASCOE: I like the waterbeds. I'm like, why do they have to do that?
THOMPSON: This innocent waterbed.
RASCOE: Yes, exactly.
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THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about "The Conjuring" movies. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show.
Thanks so much to you both for being here.
ULABY: Thank you so much.
RASCOE: Thanks for having me. This was fun.
THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all back here tomorrow when we talk about "In The Heights."
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