So, a priest, a novice, and a French-Canadian walk into a monastery. It’s the setup for the latest entry in The Conjuring Universe, the successful series of horror films that began with a James Wan-directed horror movie based on “true” events and has led to multiple sequels and spin-offs. After dealing with my favorite franchise entry, Annabelle: Creation, it’s now time for The Nun, from director Corin Hardy. Sadly, while everyone put on their best robes and habits, the movie has little to offer beyond ample amounts of noise and lots of shadowy scenery.
Audiences who have been keeping up may remember the Demon Nun (Bonnie Aarons) from The Conjuring 2. Much like how the introduction of Annabelle in the first Conjuring film led to a stand-alone prequel starring the evil doll, The Nun is another prequel that goes over the origins of a demon that paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, would eventually dispatch of for good(?). This story focuses on the attempts of Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to defeat the evil at a Romanian monastery in 1952, following the mysterious suicide of a nun.
The great thing about this ConjurVerse is how the Warren’s (regardless of how valid their stories may be) have a house full of cinematic spin-off ideas. On the plus side, you can have a variety of reasonably inexpensive horror flicks that attract solid talent and can play into different sub-genres within this horror franchise. The downside is knowing that not all of these is going to work. I loathed the first Annabelle but found the prequel follow-up to be a solid horror romp. Perhaps I can look forward to the prequel to this film, The Novice.
To its credit, a lot works in The Nun. The Romanian locations and castles found for this film look great. While I’ll get to some of the issues involving the interiors, exterior shots of the buildings and landscapes allowed for a moody atmosphere that set a good tone for where things were headed. If The Conjuring films are more on the side of exorcism-type horror, The Nun certainly wants to operate as a gothic horror feature. While merely successful in a lot of the setup, before becoming a jump-scare-fest, a lot can be said for how things are handled in establishing eerie parts of the monastery.
There’s also a committed cast made up of too few people. Taissa Farmiga, a clever casting choice, given that she’s the younger sister of Conjuring star Vera Farmiga, puts plenty of effort into the innocent young woman who must face up against unspeakable terror. Bichir, never afraid to put his all into even the schlockiest of films, invests plenty into this Catholic priest with guilt in his past. There’s also good work from Jonas Bloquet as Frenchie, the lone source of humor in this fairly serious affair.
Where the film goes wrong is in its wrongheaded decisions involving how to deliver on the supposed horror of it all. Anyone familiar with this series should already know it operates by way of loud noises accompanying sudden shocks, which is par for the course with most mainstream horror. At the same time, jump scares are not the worst thing for the genre when they feel earned. The Nun, however, has a problem in how repetitive the whole thing feels.
Yes, I came to this movie knowing I’d be getting something of this kind, but I can only take so many scenes of characters naively walking up to something that seems strange and not anticipating yet another wacky demon emerging. And that doesn’t even account for the numerous times characters willfully separate from each other. Sure, certain horror tropes come with the territory, but I’ve seen other movies, ones within this same franchise, that know how to keep things exciting while utilizing the same basic tricks.
Not helping are the murky interior visuals that hinder the well-established atmosphere and outdoor settings. Sure, an evil monastery isn’t going to have many colors to spice things up, but if The Nun wanted to embrace its gothic intents or Hammer horror inspirations, I would have been happy to see it go much bigger on the gore, or make the Demon Nun’s actions more elaborately macabre. One sequence involving numerous ghouls with their heads covered in bloody burlap sacks felt the most inspired, and I would have happily sat through more of that.
Additionally, this film ultimately doesn’t take us anywhere. Sure, it’s a prequel, and there’s an inevitable realization that more horror involving the Demon Nun will take place, but The Nun doesn’t get very far in trying to fill in any interesting gaps. While well-performed, the characters have little to offer, and the lack of many of them means the stakes feel relatively low. This may amount to complaints about story and character in the 5th entry and 2nd demon-based spin-off in a horror series, but I can once again point to Annabelle: Creation as a film that got it right, despite the odds that were against it.
The Nun is not a film I needed to be all that deep, but the film still hits below the mark of what is the bare minimum required to be a successful horror feature. Some strong visuals and committed work from the small cast aside, it’s a series of jump scares in a film that never rises to the level of creepy or intense. Sure, the very loud sound design would like the audience to feel a level of unease, but that sort of effort merely makes for a forgettable entry in a cinematic universe that’s had its share of ups and downs. Perhaps focus on another creepy antique in the Warren’s back room will lead to something more terrifying than this shadowy sister.