I’m sure it’s pretty common knowledge that perhaps the quintessential prospect studios this decade have sought after are self-sustaining cinematic universes á la the one at Marvel. Yet aside from that example, there haven’t been too many follow-up successes, with DC continually failing to get any kind of a foothold and others like the Dark Universe face-planting after one installment in The Mummy. And though I’d like to give a tentative shoutout to the MonsterVerse as the recent titles Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island look to set up their crossover event in the coming years, the only other example that’s had lasting success in the forefront of audiences’ minds is The Conjuring Universe, which has almost taken the opposite approach in so that it started with the tentpole, foundational films and then spun off from there with the individual stories. And while the primary Conjuring movies remain the franchise’s best outings – largely thanks to James Wan – the spinoffs have been hit-or-miss with emulating their style. The only one that really landed was the second Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, that was easily able to top the first on almost atmosphere alone. Well, here’s another entry that relies heavily on atmosphere, or at least should, The Nun, its title creature getting a spin-off after its memorable debut in The Conjuring 2. And though this should have been a slam dunk, featuring such a creepy character and getting English director Corin Hardy to helm the project after his disturbing horror flick The Hallow, it can’t help but feel so perfunctory and mechanical. The scares are there, the mood is there, the story is there-ish, but missing is that sense of unnerving uncertainty that made these movies so hard to watch with two eyes open. Every frame, every edit, every piece of dialogue just feels so expected and ordinary that The Nun simply becomes a slog. I wouldn’t call it straight-up bad, but when you exist in a series that prides itself on its jump scares and are still having a tough time keeping people entertained, you’ve got yourself a problem.
Set in 1952, The Nun opens on the Cârța Monastery in southern Romania, where a supernatural entity taking the form of a nun attacks two actual nuns, killing one and forcing the second to hang herself. In response, the Vatican tasks Father Burke (Demián Bichir) with investigating the deaths and appraising the current state of the abbey, along with the help of novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who has been known to be supernaturally sensitive and experience visions on occasion. The two are escorted to the abbey by a local of the nearby village by the name of Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who was also the one to previously discover the hanging nun. Once there, they soon learn that there is indeed some evil presence lurking the grounds, and that it may be traced back to the abbey’s early history. They must know of its origins and desires if they are to expel it for good, and before it can kill anyone else.
Not the most intricate of plots, there. I mean, yes, the Conjuring movies are best known for their scares, not their plots, but even in the most scare-heavy scenes they’re layered with human emotion and characterizations, which is partly why they feel so visceral and genuine. Here, however, everything onscreen merely represents the idea of something rather than the actual thing. Valek – the demon – isn’t so much terrifying in action as it is a creepy, still image. Even the human characters are cardboard cutouts of what the filmmakers have seen in previous religious horror movies; Max von Sydow’s character in The Exorcist has more depth in his whole ten minutes of screen time than Bichir’s character does in this whole goddamn movie. And I’m not one to knock any of the actors involved, save for maybe Bloquet, whose comic relief is so unnecessary here I was actively rooting for Valek to make some heads roll already. As a side-note, he does also remind me of Alessandro Nivola’s character in Jurassic Park III for some reason, so that’s certainly not good. At least he doesn’t do any parasailing, though.
And as for the scares, they’re resonant of the tricks this franchise has been pulling for the last half-decade, but without the shock factor or directorial finesse that essentially spawns a new film every year. They say that an actor shouldn’t force tears in an emotional scene else the work show, even if successful, and that’s kind of what happens here. Granted, there’s not a whole lot of crying onscreen – just off-camera – far too often can you feel the filmmaking machine churning as it sets up scare after scare. Especially with there having been four spiritual predecessors to this one already, there comes a time where if you don’t shake things up or at least throw a curveball once in a while it starts to become rote. And when it becomes rote, it becomes plain, and when it becomes plain, it becomes boring. And boy, have I never been more bored watching a horror movie this year than when I was watching The Nun. And it’s not that the content on paper wouldn’t be unnerving, it’s just that it keeps the audience at such a distance that never is the illusion shattered. It’s like watching a YouTube video of people going through a haunted house: it looks fun to be there in person, but it’s not going to garner the same reaction through a screen of any size.
If you’re a Conjuring devotee but got burned out by horror from last month’s Slender Man, you can probably afford to miss this one. Admittedly, The Nun does take some prominent steps to link it to its sister films, but not in any meaningful way. While entirely on-the-nose, the connections serve as mere bookends to already concluded storylines – not even teasing future installments – and won’t appeal to casual viewers nor hardcore fans, too random for the former and too pandering for the latter. I’d have almost preferred it to keep some secrets subtle, that way online discourse could discover the links for themselves and stoke the flames of discussion. But no, it wants to spell everything out for you, an approach that backfires when the final product’s value as a whole is taken into consideration. For those of you who may be wondering whether there’s anything to Taissa Farmiga’s casting in regard to her real-life sister headlining the main Conjuring films, I won’t go into whether that amounts to anything or not, but I will say to expect to be disappointed either way.
Again, all the pieces are there for The Nun to be another effective hit for the franchise, if not the better of the solo movies. And it’s not outright terrible, but it is outright average with all the missed opportunities and its desire to copy and paste, and that perhaps is the most egregious sin of all. Judging by the box office receipts, we may be seeing more of Valek sooner rather than later. And I’m not opposed to the notion, provided they actually give the story the gravitas it deserves and it has the gusto to take a chance and be original. For now, though, The Nun is a forgettable gothic horror flick that can’t seem to discard the old tricks established by its predecessors and kick the habit. Sorry, I had to.
Final Score: 4/10