I’ve long feared that the Conjuring series wouldn’t work with a different team behind it. The first two—written by Chad and Carey Hayes and directed by James Wan—are horror par excellence. The spinoffs—written and directed by a gaggle of other people—are not. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the third entry in the main series, replaces Wan and the Hayes brothers with director Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona) and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Orphan). God be with them.

It’s not like Wan and the Hayes brothers are the only ones who can make a good horror movie, obviously. But they might be the only ones who can make a good Conjuring movie. It all comes down to tone. Chad and Carey Hayes, both avowed Christians, have spoken at length about how they consider their Conjuring scripts to be faith-based projects. They believe that the Warrens—the real-life demonologist couple at the center of the Conjuring series—were actual spiritual warriors, as opposed to opportunistic frauds exploiting confused families. Chad and Carey’s rosy-eyed view of the Warrens (and of the world) gives their scripts a palpable earnestness. They’re ghost stories told by people who’d die for their belief in ghosts.

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And then there’s the Wan factor. As far as anyone knows, James Wan didn’t show up to preach—he showed up to direct the hell of out some horror. His handling of the first two Conjuring films is almost roller coaster-like. He’s constantly showing off, twirling the camera through the set like a coaster car climbing an incline, cheekily hyping up the imminent drop. Wan’s horror is flashy, elaborate, scary fun. Combine that stylish playfulness with the Hayes’ religious conviction and you have a winning sweet-and-sour formula: a story treated with reverence but not self-importance; a spectacle that’s sincere rather than hollow. It’s a combination that self-corrects its own defects.

The Devil Made Me Do It throws that tonal balance off. That’s not to say the screenplay and direction are bad—both are perfectly functional. Johnson-McGoldrick’s screenplay is better structured than The Conjuring 2, in fact, with A and B plots that intertwine throughout the film instead of haphazardly colliding for the final act. And Chaves’ direction is acceptable Wan-lite, full of deliberately paced scares and tense lighting setups, though the framing is a little underwhelming—it’s often obvious where the next threat is going to pop up in the shot. The Devil Made Me Do It is a decent effort. But that Conjuring je ne sais quoi is missing.

Without a screenwriter who venerates the Warrens like saints, we get a story that makes them protagonists instead of divine interventions. It’s the old Jack Sparrow problem: not every great side character works as a main character. This was an issue in The Conjuring 2 but it’s far more pronounced in the third entry. The fictional versions of Ed and Lorraine Warren are as watchable as ever, thanks to heartfelt performances from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, but their conflicts are too easily solved by their undying love for each other. Their partnership is a lovely touch in a story’s periphery, but as the main attraction, there’s no real danger to them to worry about. Their faith makes them superheroes. That’s part of the reason why The Devil Made Me Do It is the least scary Conjuring movie. The protagonists are angels—do not be afraid.

Also, without the Hayes’ evangelistic bent, there’s no sense of a larger war being waged between good and evil. Christian mythology is good worldbuilding material, and the Hayes brothers couldn’t get enough of it. But The Devil Made Me Do It narrows the scope. It’s about the movie stars at its center; and the villain is a human person, not the creeping presence of The Devil itself. It’s a fine enough setup for a horror film—but this is the first Conjuring entry not to feel special.

★★★   (3/5)