Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.

The films in the Conjuring universe haven’t all been winners, but the first two main installments (The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, both directed by James Wan) had a stylish, creepy charm to them, while some of the spinoffs (including Annabelle: Creation) were solid exercises in horror.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the third “main” film based very loosely on an allegedly true story featuring Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The now-infamous paranormal investigators always seemed to be around when somebody claimed to be possessed in the ’70s and ’80s. For example, they were sniffing around the premises that later inspired the Amityville Horror franchise (referenced in The Conjuring 2).  

This time, the story is based on an actual “Devil Made Me Do It” case in which a man stabbed another man to death, and later claimed that demonic possession led to his crime. That early ’80s case didn’t get very far in the courts, but it is treated with total seriousness in the world of The Conjuring.

Alas, that world has become hackneyed, with a tiresome recycling of horror tropes, in The Devil Made Me Do It. James Wan has vacated the director’s chair, leaving the proceedings in the not-so-capable hands of Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona), who flat-out rips off William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in the film’s opening minutes. The Warrens are present in the prologue as a young boy gets possessed and does some unintentionally funny “spider walk” contortions, accompanied by the obligatory mouth froth. The priest who performs the exorcism arrives in a moment that re-creates the silhouetted image from The Exorcist poster. The only things missing from the exorcism scene are Max von Sydow and gallons of pea soup.

During the latter stages of the demonic melee, the young boy passes his malevolent occupier onto his sister’s boyfriend, Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor). Johnson suffers from some hallucinations and eventually stabs a guy to death while allegedly under the influence of the devil’s minions. The Warrens, after witnessing the initial exorcism, come back to investigate the possible possession—and find that all sorts of evil forces are involved.

Yes, this movie depicts a real-life murderer as an unwilling vessel for the devil’s business, with the Warrens fully convinced he’s innocent. As portrayed by O’Connor, Johnson is just a sweet fella who protected a little bespectacled boy by allowing a demon to jump from the kid into him. He’s actually a hero in this movie.

But … as long as the scares are good, we could take some bending of the truth in the name of cinematic horror, right? Unfortunately, Chaves and his writers are not up to the task, concocting a bunch of unfocussed nonsense involving curses, witch totems, cults, ghoulish priests, basements, scary woods, corpses, rats, waterbeds, dog kennels and murderous daughters. It seems as if every other scene features Farmiga’s character heading into a basement or crawlspace with a flashlight, because that’s what you do in horror films. While Wan could make old tricks feel new, Chaves just uses these tricks over and over, with no payoff. The film clocks in at just under two hours, but it feels twice as long.

The Warrens performed quite a few investigations during their run, so this franchise has more “true stories” to bounce off in future installments. Rest assured: There will be more Conjuring films. The Warrens need a serious change of scenery, so future writers should transform one of their haunted houses into a skyscraper that’s on fire, or into an airplane flying over the Bermuda Triangle. Switch things up; little kids frothing from the mouth and possessed dudes with foggy contact lenses in basements are getting tired.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is now playing at theaters across the valley.