With James Wan mostly off in blockbusterworld, direction of the third installment of the mainstream of the Conjuring Universe films is handed off to Michael Chaves – who handled the tributary of The Curse of La Llorona. Wan scores a co-story credit with Devid Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, who wrote the script – though the significant inclusion in this department is ‘based on characters created by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes’, writers of The Conjuring (2013) … which more or less owns up to the Ed and Lorraine Warren played in the series by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (among the most watchable character actor stars) being not the real-life, far more controversial occult ambulance chasers.
At the end of the last Annabelle film, there was a bit of foreshadowing that the Warrens were headed to Amityville – though I suspect the rights to that unwieldy paranormal franchise are so clouded it’d be hard to absorb them into the Conjureverse. Instead, we get a version of the Johnson/Glatzel true crime story previously dramatised as The Demon Murder Case. During an exorcism in 1981, Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruari O’Connor) asks the demon hop out of his girlfriend’s little brother David Glatzen (Julian Hillard) – who has been doing some of the contortionist bends beloved of the series – and into him. Later, while seemingly possessed by the spirit of Debbie Harry singing ‘Call Me’, Johnson murders his landlord Bruno (Ronnie Gene Blevins) and then recovers enough to be able to read aloud from the Bible, which complicates his ‘devil made me do it’ defence.
While Johnson is in jail awaiting trial and we dread this turning into a courtroom drama like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Warrens consult with an ex-priest (John Noble) who has a stash of cursed objects to rival their own … and it turns out that another of the series’ habitual witchy supernatural females (the very striking Eugene Bondurant as ‘the Occultist’) is the big bad behind it all. Some viewers might conclude that Johnson was a rageaholic asshole who tried to cop an innovative plea and still went down with a manslaughter conviction, just as some might look at the case which inspired Emily Rose and conclude that the priests involved – and the church that back them – were guilty of homicidal child abuse. But the ethics of turning paranormal news items into spooky movies for profit remain unaddressed as this hit-or-miss franchise lumbers on.