Whatever one things of the seven films to date that make up the Conjuring Universe - I admire their guileless commitment to the "jump out and say boo!" qualities of a good cheesy ghost story, and the thick mountains of period atmosphere they wrap that commitment in - surely we must all agree that the crown jewels of the franchise are The Conjuring of 2013 and The Conjuring 2 of 2016 themselves, the sub-series that anchors the whole sprawling mass and give it a name. I regret to say that the third time is not the charm: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the clumsily-titled eighth movie in the universe and third Conjuring proper, is just not very good. Not as a Conjuring picture, not as a horror movie, not as a mechanism for giving the perpetually-underused Vera Farmiga a big juicy role full of rock-steady Catholic faith mingling with punishing knowledge of just how much evil the world can throw at us. Not even as a delivery system for the series' characteristic jump scares, of which I believe there are only two across the unhurried 112-minute running time (which, to be fair, is a good sight shorter than The Conjuring 2).

One would like to lay the blame for all of this at the feet of director Michael Chaves, whose only other feature was one of the undeniable nadirs of this series, 2019's The Curse of La Llorona; certainly not least among that film's seemingly inexhaustible supply of problems was its stilted, uncertain directorial hand. But I am afraid that the troubles with The Devil Made Me Do It started at its story, co-written by series godfather James Wan and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick. As with the other Conjurings, this was taken from the "case files" of Ed and Lorraine Warren, deceased amateur demonologists and world-class con artists thanks to their work in helping to perpetrate the Amityville hoax in the1970s. As played by Wilson and Farmiga, Ed and Lorraine are much better movie characters than they were people,* a genuinely warm and supportive married couple who draw strength from each other's love and support in the face of literally pure evil, and the filmmakers have done fine work in treating the "true" stories as inspirations for rock-solid spooky thrills and skin-crawling creepiness, resulting in two of the best old-school ghost stories of the 2010s. The Devil Made Me Do It gets at least one of those things right: neither of the earlier films have invested so hard in Farmiga and Wilson's chemistry or built the Warren marriage into such a fundamental element of the narrative, and as a portrait of a highly functional marriage thriving under adverse conditions, I've got not one thing to say against the movie. You know, in case that's the primary thing you wanted from your horror picture.

As far as transforming one of the Warren's most notorious trips into the public eye into a movie, The Devil Made Me Do It is pretty damn flat and thoughtless. It takes as its launching point the case of Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O'Connor, blandly likable), who in 1981 shocked the nation by entering the United States' first-ever plea of "not guilty by reason of demonic possession" in a murder trial. What The Devil Made Me Do It fails to note is that the judge's instantaneous response to this was "no, you can't do that", but that's okay, because as soon as Arne enters his plea and the film fades ominously to black, it pretty much immediately forgets that it was ever going to be a legal drama. Instead, it spends its last two-thirds as the Warrens' investigation into just what exactly happened to Arne, and why it appears that he wasn't simply attacked by a random demon, but deliberately cursed by a human Satanist or Satanists unknown.

What we have, in other words, is less of a haunted house movie (the filmmakers are on the record as having specifically wanted to avoid making a third haunted house-based Conjuring, to which I can only offer a hearty and resounding, "Oh. Huh"), than an overlong and slack X-Files knock-off with two Mulders and no Scully. And that's not even a problem, except that it's not done very well; the middle chunk of the movie, after Arne kills his landlord and winds up in jail, but before the Warrens find their way into the underground Satanist den where the movie finally remembers that it's pleasant and scary to send people stalking through extremely dark tunnels with lots of negative space for spooky things to pop up into, is painfully drawn-out and devoid of a single new idea for staging any of its by-the-books clichΓ©s. Its best single move is to cast John Noble as a twitchy old priest whose brain got a little bit broken by too many years studying demonic rituals, and even that's a little undone by how he might as well have a neon sign saying "I Have A Dark Secret" mounted to the outside of his remote house full of Satanic bric-a-brac.

Outside of its dreary middle, though, The Devil Made Me Do It isn't without its charms. Chaves is massively improved as a director this time around, chilling out from the mania he brought to La Llorona to favor instead some slowness and stillness; the flipside to the lack of jump scares is that we have a downright stately approach to letting the horror simmer slowly. If this means that, for lengthy stretches, it hardly seems like The Devil Made Me Do It is a horror movie at all, well, that's why I can't help but regard it as a disappointment. Still, it has some very good ideas about how to transition between scenes, particularly those involving Lorraine's psychic visions that seem to put her in two spaces at the same time, and Chaves executes at least two very strong setpieces. One of these is the exorcism that opens the film, as little eleven-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), whose sister Debbie (Sarah Catharine Hook), Arne's girlfriend, writhes as the family and the Warrens are thrown around screaming, and in all the confusion David accidentally gives his demon to Arne; the other is a morgue setpiece involving some nifty cross-cutting and the best bloated dead-eyed corpse this franchise has trotted out in a while, because it actually looks like a dead body and not a nightmarish kohl-eyed parody of haunted house imagery. And while I won't call the scene where Arne kills his landlord "horror", it nonetheless does a good job of using fast cutting and unpleasantly loud sound mixing to get at the terror and confusion and lack of control of the moment.

Really though, what it needs are Farmiga and Wilson, and it has them. It doesn't do nearly enough with them; Lorraine, in particular, is simply a less complex and layered figure than she was in The Conjuring 2, so instead of having a thick vein of faith and terror and conflict to play, Farmiga just gets to serve as the warm-voiced anchor to the paranormal investigation whose inner conflicts are all just flatly declared without being explored, and who is mostly called upon to look ashen-faced and shocked. To be sure, I'd rather have an ace like Farmiga doing that than most people, but it's not the same as having a good role for her to play, and this, as much as anything to do with a human villain instead of demons, or fumbling the task of making a legal thriller, is what makes The Devil Made Me Do It feel a bit empty and pedestrian. Nothing is out-and-out terrible about the movie, but it's not very interesting, not very fun, and not very spooky, and it's kind of hard to say what's the point if it can't have one of those.

Reviews in this series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg, 2017)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)
Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman, 2019)
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (Chaves, 2021)

*That's a little unfair of me; everything I've read suggest that in her last decades, Lorraine was awfully sweet in person and very good company, just so long as she wasn't conspiring to defraud the American public with her horseshit.