Producers: James Wan and Peter Safran   Director: Michael Chaves   Screenplay: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick   Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani, Sterling Jerins, Paul Wilson, Charlene Amoia, Ingrid Bisu, Andrea Andrade and Ronnie Gene Blevins   Distributor: Warner Brothers/New Line

Grade: C

Of the previous seven movies in what’s referred to as “The Conjuring Universe,” the only two that were much good were the two actual “Conjuring” titles.  The remaining five—the three “Annabelle” pictures, “The Nun” and “The Curse of La Llorana”—were all either mediocre or awful.

That might make one hopeful about “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” which returns Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson to the forefront of things as paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren. Unfortunately, while slickly made, it proves the weakest of the “Conjuring” trio, an over-plotted, frantic disappointment in what had been a superior horror series.

The plot is based on one of the Warrens’ most talked-about cases, the 1981 trial of Arnie Johnson, an alleged murderer whose defense rested on the argument that he’d been possessed at the time of the killing.  Supposedly the demon had entered him when he invited it to do so during the exorcism of David Glatzel, a young boy who was the brother of Johnson’s girlfriend.  (Like Father Karras of “The Exorcist,” he acted out of a desire to save the child.)  It was purportedly the demon that had control when Johnson killed his landlord.

The bulk of the plot, somewhat simplified from the Warrens’ account of the incident, follows Ed, and especially Lorraine (since Ed, who was present with her at the original exorcism, suffered a heart attack in his struggle with David) as they track down the source of the curse that summoned the demon in the first place.  It’s a complicated process that starts back at the Glatzel house, where they find a satanic totem in the basement that turned a water bed into a devilish instrument (one of the funnier elements of the story), takes a detour to a town where another murder had occurred, and then to a morgue where the dead return to life, and finally ends up at an underground altar that’s the source of the hellish activity.  In the course of the search Lorraine exhibits remarkable visionary powers that reveal much of what has been happening.

Meanwhile Arnie is ensconced in prison awaiting trial, still under the demon’s power, which exhibits itself in increasingly terrifying ways.  But Lorraine and Ed manage to break the spell and free the young man by destroying the person who initiated the curse—though the judge refuses to allow a plea of innocence by reason of possession. 

The opening exorcism scene gets things going strongly, with Julian Hilliard, as the boy, going through some striking contortions—aided, of course, by CGI.  It also contains one of the film’s wittiest moments:  the image of the priest (Steve Coulter) arriving that mimics precisely the famous shot of Father Merrin’s arrival in “The Exorcist.”  (Unfortunately the importuning by Arnie to the demon to leave the boy and inhabit him is slackly choreographed, though overall Ruairi O’Connor does a fine job as the accused man.)

From then on, however, the film grows increasingly disappointing.  The murder scene is ineptly staged, those involving an elderly ex-priest (John Noble) are ponderous, and the sequences of Lorraine’s visions of past deaths, which reveal much of the solution to the mystery, are chaotic and excessively gruesome.  Worst is the finale, which juxtaposes Arnie’s deterioration in the prison hospital with the frenetic efforts of the Warrens to defeat the guilty party; set in a maze of tunnels, it’s drawn-out unconscionably. 

Though there are occasional effective jump scares along the way, they’re not sufficient to make up for the defects.  The coda that reveals the outcome of the trial is also a dud, since the basis for the jury’s decision is never examined, though the excerpts from the Warrens’ actual tapes and interviews that accompany the closing credit crawls are interesting, though flatter than the dramatization.

The relative decline in quality here can’t be blamed on Farmiga or Wilson, both of whom continue to give their all to these characters, while O’Connor and Hilliard are standouts in the supporting cast.  (By contrast, Noble and Eugenie Bondurant, as his daughter, are especially unconvincing.)  Nor can the visuals be faulted; though the editing by Peter Gvozdas and Christian Wagner is sometimes too hectic (especially in the finale), Jennifer Spence’s production design and Leah Butler’s costumes are excellent, as is Michael Burgess’s glossy cinematography.  The effects are solid, and Joseph Bishara’s score is certainly robust.

Perhaps the inferiority of this “Conjuring” derives from the fact that James Wan,, who directed the first two installments, turned over the helming duties to Michael Chaves, who was responsible for one of the weakest entries in the franchise, “La Llorona.”  His work here has more energy than it evinced in that 2019 effort, but it still lacks distinction.

As is usual in this sort of “true story” supernatural fare, there are nay-sayers who challenge the basic premises of the Warrens’ account.  (They were, after all, also involved in the “Amityville Horror” business that is generally agreed to have been a hoax.)  But whether you want to believe in the demonic possession foundation of “The Devil Made Me Do It” or not, the unhappy fact is that this third installment in the “Conjuring” trilogy is an inferior episode in what has until now been one of the better modern horror series.