At this point, The Conjuring universe can get away with a lot, based on expectation. Having become one of the few successful cinematic universes, while The Conjuring films tend to be regarded as the signature entries, these spin-offs have had an interesting pattern. The first Annabelle was a miserable film, yet the sequels proved far more successful in execution (David F. Sanberg’s Annabelle: Creation happens to be my favorite of all of these). 2018’s The Nun may have parlayed an effective trailer into massive box office success, but the film had little to offer. Now we have The Nun II, and whether the film actually succeeds in what it’s attempting to do or I’m just in much better spirits, I found the film to have the right kind of entertainment value to make this creepy flick worthwhile. At the very least, it was able to silence some of the demons of the past and deliver sufficient bumps, jolts, and eerie goats.
Set four years after The Nun (1956, to be exact), there’s a bit of a dual narrative in place. One side finds a French boarding school being plagued by the presence of a demonic force. Young Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey) seems to be at the center of it all, given her friendship with the school’s handyman, Maurice (Jonas Bloquet). Reprising his role from the first film, one may or may not recall how closely involved Maurice may be with certain threatening entities. Meanwhile, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) foresees a lot of evil afoot and eventually teams up with rookie nun (is that a thing?) Sister Debra (Storm Reid) to find the evil she thought she had rid the lands of all those years ago.
First off, it remains amusing that the Farmiga sisters essentially own The Conjuring Universe along with James Wan. The fact that they bring a no-nonsense seriousness to the films either helps keep things grounded or enhances the inherent goofiness that comes with some of this. However, they are an assured presence in these features nonetheless. Regardless, for Taissa Farmiga, having her in a role defined by her devotion to God allows for a strength in this lead character that enables the film to get away with how involved she is with the story and why she would keep pushing forward into the unknown or otherwise.
Reid delivers decent enough support as a new American gateway character, though I did keep wondering if there was a lot left on the table regarding the presence of a person of color in this system at this time in history. Of course, if this series wants to balance the “based on a true story” element of The Conjuring films with the completely fantastical areas the spin-offs live in, perhaps there’s only so much room for social commentary.
Really, like the other spin-offs, these films play more as “Boo Machines” than anything else. They are designed to generate scares through elaborate set pieces and established deadly threats. These movies have far less to say about faith and conviction, as that element is generally saved for what Ed and Lorraine Warren are going through in their lives. Instead, a film like The Nun II chooses to focus on where the creepiest places are that it can insert surprises and ghoulish imagery.
Fortunately, it’s rather effective. While I can’t say I have a detailed memory of The Nun in relation to its jump scares, having a bit more scope does allow this sequel to feel more varied in how to deploy scary moments. Various walls and dark corners are used as needed, of course, but I appreciated some clever moments of what would lead to another appearance of this sinister Sister, let alone other frightening figures that are soon found terrorizing Irene, Sophie, and various boarding school kids.
This also makes the continued presence of Maurice (effectively played by Bloquet) worthwhile. With just enough work done for you to care about this guy’s innocence being preserved, if the film was trying to say anything separate from something pertaining to religion, it would likely have to do with an out-of-control male figure pushing his way after young school children, and the system making that possible. Naturally, the screenplay by Akela Cooper (of Malignant and M3GAN), Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing only wants to offer so much that isn’t plot-essential. Still, at 110 minutes, they seemed to be on the cusp of getting more messaging out there.
With that said, there is a good amount of scary nun work to go around. Bonnie Aarons gets a lot more face time as the titular villain, letting the devilish grin and gnarly teeth do plenty of work in making sure the threat is clear. As a series big bad for the entire Conjuring universe, it’s easy enough to see why more of this character is being delivered for audiences, even if the mythology behind it seems a bit thin. Although, credit where it’s due, for a series that’s frequently delivered pretty lightly on its R-rating, The Nun II doesn’t skimp on its brutality, even for a very pro-Catholic movie.
Director Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) is certainly trying to push for more fun. It’s mostly a serious affair, but while director Corin Hardy had The Nun aimed at adding a gothic element to the proceedings with mixed results, Chaves is less interested. Granted, we’re not set in one large Romanian monastery this time around, but the school, a few churches, and various European streets let other cinematic ideas emerge. If anything, while I found a lot of Evil Dead-style Sam Raimi energy in La Llorona, for The Nun II, I had more of a feeling of the horror films by Guillermo del Toro as a visual influence.
Does it amount to something scary and lasting? Well, I can’t say I left the theater worried about whatever dark corners I may encounter, but there’s a crowd-pleasing element to it all, granted one doesn’t think too hard about it. Between the editing and Marco Beltrami’s score, there’s a semblance of something always happening to keep things moving. Any choice to dig into the logic of the various supernatural events and I’m not sure The Nun II holds together all that well. Still, there’s obviously a goal in mind when it comes to what an audience wants out of films like this, and while I can’t say it’s a highly substantive experience, seeing the evil Valak get back in the habit led to a decently horrifying return to this universe.