The latest film focusing on paranormal investigations of Ed & Lorraine Warren is the third film in The Conjuring series (focusing on the Warrens) but the eighth film in the “Conjuring Universe.” If that’s confusing, well, so is the latest film.

The movies set in this shared universe all boast they are based on true stories, primarily from the files of the Warrens. Full disclosure, I’ve always thought that the Warrens’ stories are mostly bunk. But in the hands of the right filmmakers, that bunk can be pretty entertaining. The first two ‘Conjuring’ films, both directed by James Wan, are pretty effective horror thrillers, as was ‘Anabelle: Creation,’ directed by David F. Sanberg.

This latest chapter is a pale shadow of those earlier films, however. Vera Farmiga and David F. Sanberg return as Lorraine and Ed Warren, and their familiarity with these characters really anchors the film. When one or both of the Warrens are on screen, the film works, but the rest of the scenes fall flat without them.

This particular case finds the Warrens documenting the possession of a young boy named David, so that they can presumably send their proof to the Vatican and have a formal exorcism performed on him. But when David suddenly stands on the table, bent backwards like a professional contortionist, Ed Warren tells the priest that’s present that they need to do an emergency exorcism immediately. The priest doesn’t think this is safe, so of course, there are unexpected complications. David’s older sister Debbie is there with her boyfriend Arne, who invites the demon inside himself instead of staying in David. All of the commotion gives Ed a heart attack, during with he sees the demon make the jump to Arne. (See, this is why you leave the exorcisms to the professionals, kids.)

Ed then wakes up in the hospital and tells Lorraine that Arne is now possessed. Which is probably why Arne stabs his landlord to death (while listing to that damned, devilish rock and roll). Arne’s locked up by the police, and indicted for murder, but the Warrens have a defense for him; he was possessed. The rest of the movie involves the Warrens trying to lift the curse that enabled the demon to possess David and then Arne, leading them to investigate a local cult and consult with a local former priest. And we can tell they’re on the right track, because Ed gets cursed and almost kills Lorraine.

Directed by Michael Chaves, this latest Conjuring film is more of an occult detective procedural than anything else. It certainly isn’t all that scary, unfortunately. Like in any proper procedural, we see our detectives (the Warrens) discover clues, make connections to other crimes, and find that some sources may not be completely honest. But that’s not what were here for, unfortunately. And even if we were, it’s never really clear why David’s family was targeted in the first place. There are some moderately effective set pieces here and there; a scene in the jail infirmary comes to mind, as does Lorraine’s psychic exploration of a killing in the forest. But that latter example gets goofy as the scene extends, and none of these elements add up to an engaging whole.

As I mentioned before, Farmiga and Wilson give far better performances than this script really deserves. And I have to give a nod to Leah Butler’s costume work. The puffy sleeves and ruffled necks on Lorraine’s blouses are perfect for the period, never crossing the line into satire of the era’s excesses.

The biggest frustration is that the movie is trying to be scary, without really succeeding. If the better movies in this franchise carry real dread, then this one struggles to even achieve unease. I won’t say that it’s boring; it moves along just fine, but you’re never really worried about the characters’ survival. And that’s not because history tells you what happens; Apollo 13 keeps you on the edge of your seat, even though you know what happens to Lovell and his crew.

Prior to quarantine, I’d have called this the kind of movie you could wait for on home video. But since this is also on HBO Max, you don't even have to wait. No matter where you see it, bring a friend; this is the kind of movie where you'll snicker about how silly it is, but that's still a pretty good time.

2.5 out of 5 stars.