The Nun (2018)
Pray For Forgiveness
From the get-go, the idea of a Nun prequel always seemed terrifying; and no, not because the sinister hooded sister terrorized audiences in James Wan’s excellent The Conjuring 2 (2016). On the contrary, unlike the possessed vintage plaything Annabelle (who only appeared in a handful of scenes in Wan’s original Conjuring), the demon Valak, taking on the form of an unholy nun, played a pivotal part in The Conjuring 2, working as the film’s chief antagonist, Wan using the character to fictitiously bridge the Amityville and Enfield cases together in a semi-plausible manner, giving the malevolent otherworldly entity a sense of purpose, mystery, and dread.
So, did we really need a Valak origin tale with the same veiled Marilyn Manson-esque bogeyman? Probably not! If anything, a spin-off based on the evil nun should’ve been more than just an excuse to get back in the habit, seeing as Valak is, in fact, a real-life demon. And not just any demon, the Great President of Hell no-less — this according to The Lesser Key of Solomon, a 17th-century spell book that acts as a sort of White Pages of the underworld, the titular ghoul often depicted as a small winged child perched atop a two-headed dragon, commanding legions of hellions. Now, there’s a film I’d love to see!
Penned by Warner Bros. go-to horror guy, Gary Dauberman — who was one of the three writers behind last year’s outstanding IT, and the sole scribe for both Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation — The Nun, the fifth entry in the Conjuring Universe, is a narratively-starved mess, a mishmash of cobbled-together jump-scares, freaky-deaky imagery and nightmarish-looking nuns, heaved into a 96-minute-long showreel — and it ain’t even scary! Moreover, there’s nothing in The Nun that comes remotely close to rivaling that petrifying painting scene from The Conjuring 2, which saw the twisted sister stalk protagonist Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) in her Connecticut home.
Set in 1952 (the earliest title in the franchise timeline), The Nun trails Catholic Priest Father Burke (Demián Bichir), who’s haunted by a failed exorcism, sent by the Vatican to investigate the suicide of a young nun, Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope), stationed at the secluded Abbey of St. Cârța in Romania, just outside the archaic village of Biertan in Transylvania, where the townsfolk still travel by horse-and-cart. Teaming with Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate on the verge of reciting her final vows, and a French-Canadian delivery supplier nicknamed, um, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who’d discovered the days-old carcass hanging outside the nunnery, Burke’s inquiry and subsequent stay at the crumbling castle that neighbors don’t go according to plan, the padre unearthing a malignant force chillin’ round the monastery, one that (apparently) threatens the faith and very soul of all who resides there.
What follows is an assemblage of lazy scenes, with little to no pay off, whose sole purpose is to launch unsuspecting viewers mere inches off their seats, though almost always fail due to their lack of creativity, moviemakers employing every trick in the horror playbook with little to no effect — think rotating crosses, old-school radios turning on and off, creaky hallways, and ominous figures creeping up from behind.
Making his directorial debut in 2015 with the low-budget Irish horror flick The Hallow, Corin Hardy is certainly a gifted filmmaker, even if his efforts on The Nun disappoint. With this being Hardy’s first American feature, the 43-year-old Englishman can’t seem to capture the frightful subtlety of Wan’s former work, the scares here flat and clichéd, stretching even the most merciful supernatural rules (and sheer logic) to breaking point. In addition, Dauberman’s sinful screenplay feels more like bullet-points on a first draft rather than a fully-fledged, cohesive story, The Nun struggling to justify its own existence. The storyline itself is very stripped-down, and kinda nun-derwhelming, the flick more-or-less set in a single location with a principal cast of about three, who (foolishly) decide it’s a good idea to split up, then spend the duration of the runtime wandering dim hallways carrying lanterns or poring over aged manuscripts, being harassed by spectral spooks. Yawn! Aside from, ya know, scaring the cowl off the clergy, what’s Valak’s endgame? Anyone searching for answers surely won’t find them here. It’s also linked back (shoddily) to previous Conjuring-verse movies via an all-too-convenient epilogue.
Admittedly, some of the imagery can be quite creepy, channeling the lush stylings of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, The Nun sporting shadowy gothic visuals and loads of (albeit trite) religious iconography (we have devilish serpents, crucifixes, and divine statues), the action taking place in and around a secluded medieval-era setting in Eastern Europe — a foreboding fortress at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. So, location-wise, it’s a nice change of pace. There’s a mist-covered cemetery just outside the cursed convent, too (complete with contorted wooden crosses for graves markers), which adds to the overall mood and eeriness, the production design by Jennifer Spence, Annabelle: Creation (2017), and cinematography by Maxime Alexandre, Maniac (2012), both chilling and atmospheric; the latter, though, is sometimes a bit too dark and murky. With that said, the layout of the architecture is hazy at best, making things hard to follow, while the lack of cool mythology nullifies the fear factor — if I don’t give two hoots about what’s happening, or can’t track any of the action, why should I give a shit?
Performances are praiseworthy all-around, so kudos to the cast for trying to breathe life into, and elevate these one-note characters. Mexico native Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight (2015), is passable as Father Burke, a soldier of God skilled in determining the validity of paranormal magic and miracles, requested by Cardinal Conroy (David Horovitch) to take on the uncanny mission, whereas Taissa Farmiga, The Final Girls (2015) — looking near-identical to her big sis, The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga — adds punch to proceedings as the progressive-minded yet strong-spirited Sister Irene, though has no direct correlation to Vera’s Lorraine Warren — a missed opportunity! Belgium-born Jonas Bloquet, Elle (2016), shines as roguish local villager Maurice ‘Frenchie’ Theriault, and steals the limelight with his tension-easing quips, often saving the flick from its own seriousness, the European star giving off a cheeky Bruce Campbell-type vibe.
The real MVP, however, is Bonnie Aarons, who reprises her role as the eponymous demonic nun, her hellish presence and unnerving exterior destined to instill fear in the hearts of moviegoers. It’s a dang shame, then, that the hair-raising haunter is criminally underused, filmmakers exorcising the same seen-it-all-before gimmicks but to lesser effect, the crooked clergywoman’s fate very much preordained, robbing the picture of any real thrill or suspense.
Ultimately, The Nun is just no fun. Despite its marketing claims, it’s a far cry from being the ‘darkest chapter in The Conjuring Universe’ (I dunno, maybe they’re talking about the lack of lighting), the pic an out-and-out snooze-fest rather than a scream-fest. It’s by far the weakest slice in the series pie, a sign that, perhaps, these offshoot stories are beginning to, well, nun out of steam. Let’s pray that the next installment is better — unless they’re dreaming of doing a Frenchie spin-off, then we’re all doomed!
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by S-Littner