Directed by Corin Hardy
I didn’t have high hopes. Normally I wouldn’t read other people’s reviews, though over the weekend I struggled to avoid snarky headlines. The Conjuring Universe movies have now become the highest grossing R-rated horror series of all time, so there’s a certain standard you’ve come to expect. And while my review isn’t the best it got (and none were good), it’s shockingly also not the worst. Unlike the movie, which marks a low point for the franchise, killing a run of two great films (The Conjuring 2 and Annabelle Creation).
Like Paranormal Activity, the focus on mythic things that go bump in the night means these Warren films have a tendency to look backwards. So here’s the prequel to the prequel’s prequel, taking place in 1952. The Nun focuses on a priest (Demián Bichir), and a nun-in-training (Taissa Farmiga) sent, by order of The Vatican, to investigate a suspicious death in a notorious Romanian abbey. You know it’s notorious since, in one of the movie’s goofier scenes, even horses know to fear it. They arrive thanks to the cheerfully sleazy, devil may care Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who discovers the body, as he is the only person living in the nearby village who will go near the abbey. From the moment they get beyond the gates it’s clear something’s off. Unfortunately, the abbey’s other inhabitants aren’t much help, giving the impression they wouldn’t say much even if they hadn’t taken a vow of silence. Bells ring over graves, a thick mist descends and the halls are stalked by a malevolent presence. Lucky for our trio that it’s not a very scary one.
The main problem is the titular demon is so god-darn ineffective. If you saw her 40-million-dollar teaser The Conjuring 2 (and if you haven’t, there’s a reminder at the start), then you’ll be familiar with her m.o of putting the fears up people before disappearing. There it was acceptable, given her relatively elusive nature and the fact she was second billed for the majority. But expanded to an entire film, it soon becomes as tiresome as a sermon. As per The Woman in Black, Valek tends to hover ominously, or occasionally make a scary face. Yet she’s too feeble to ever feel much like a threat, being more a trickster than a killer. This feebleness is amplified by a surprisingly small cast that you rarely feel worried for.
What’s worse is you don’t feel much else for them either. Despite a core cast of just three, you never get to know them, with the dialogue doing the bare minimum needed to advance the similarly austere plot. The character journeys lack direction, and I suspect you would struggle to find five adjectives to describe any of them beyond the most superficial. They’re also kept apart for large sections, and have minimal banter – odd, considering it shares a writer with It. Given how well The Conjuring 1 and 2 integrated their characters’ emotional arcs into their action, it’s frustrating to see a sequel do the series such a disservice. What other people we see, mostly other nuns, are there for window-dressing only, with the Hogwarts-lite abbey boasting the highest corridor per person ratio of any building I can think of. That being said, despite a labyrinth exterior we see very little of it, with the action being limited to just a few important rooms.
Some of this wouldn’t be a problem were the set-pieces, of which there are many, scary. But they tend not to be, with the scene building to a loud jolt before just ending. For instance, in the first act Frenchie is on his back in the fog, facing certain death from the demon just meters away advancing on him. Before she just sods off for no reason other than the story needs him to stay alive. Usually Valek vanishes ‘til a character finds another clue. These normally take tropey forms such as a big key, an old book or someone showing up to give an exposition dump. It’s all of bad supernatural horrors’ worst *snigger* habits. What’s frustrating is every so often there’s something with potential, like the reveal that the darkness was awoken by the bombs of World War Two. There’s also a genuinely quite cool bit involving a coffin, and a couple of decent jumps (the best being borrowed from The Exorcist III and appearing the in the trailer). Though since these parts have no consequence, then the movie is less than the sum of them.
James Wan has spoken enthusiastically about working with some of horror’s freshest voices. Hence David F. Sandberg getting (the superb) Annabelle Creation of the back of (the admittedly flawed) Lights Out, and now Corin Hardy getting The Nun after the excellent The Hallow. Yet the movie we get doesn’t have any of the raw energy, nor stressful through-your-fingers-only tension of his debut. Rather, it feels like a big, bloated studio movie. Neither trashy nor enjoyable enough to be the Hammer films its aspires to, The Nun is a remarkable step down for both its director and its franchise (which it has one smart link to that it’s not worth the ticket price to learn). And while neither’s previous form ought to shape one’s judgement, it’s tough to ignore their legacy. It’s not got the passion of its predecessors, nor even the relatable save-the-kid conflict of the until now worst entry to date: Annabelle. Holy shit.