After one sequel, three Annabelles, and two more so-so spin-offs, the Conjuring universe kicked off by James Wan’s effectively old-school original was beginning to run out of road. The good news for Michael Chaves’ core-film continuer is that supernatural sleuths Ed and Lorraine Warren have got some of their mojo back in The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It, thanks to a twist-filled, pacy chiller that ditches the normal haunted-house shenanigans in favor of the kind of itinerant paranormal procedural that was once The X-Files’ bread and butter.
The fact-inspired catalyst this time around is the curious case of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a Connecticut tree doctor whose answer when accused of the 1981 slaying of his landlord was that the devil made him do it. His exasperated attorney calls in our demon-dispelling heroes, though they’re not exactly match-fit: Ed (Patrick Wilson) has a dicky ticker brought on by a recent attempted exorcism, while Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) is finding her psychic visions too intense for comfort.
The aforementioned exorcism, in which an eight-year-old boy turned human pretzel throws spidery shapes that would make Regan MacNeil proud, is an early highlight with its flying crockery, lacerated wallpaper, and diabolical yowls.
Yet while the kid (Julian Hillard) gets another decent scare later on thanks to a satanically possessed waterbed, it is Arne himself (Ruairi O’Connor) who prompts the other set-pieces, among them a Manson-esque murder-orgy accompanied by both caged dogs yapping and Blondie’s "Call Me" played at eardrum-splintering volume.
Ed and Lorraine’s attempts to determine if Arne was indeed the devil’s plaything at the time of the crime lead them to an oddball priest with a basement full of death-cult table-ware, the arboreal scene of a messy murder-suicide, and a funeral parlor whose patrons refuse to stay on the slab.
The latter sequence has sufficient nods to grisly zombie horror to suggest a new direction entirely for the intrepid duo. A shame, then, that Chaves eventually defaults to the sort of ill-lit subterranean tunnel-stalking we’ve seen a million times before, complete with a thin-faced antagonist who’s The Nun in all but wimple.
Startling in parts and derivative in others, The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It does at least gift its universe a welcome course correction. Wherever the Warrens go from here, though, it will be the box office that makes them do it.