Time to say your prayers, for The Nun has arrived to bore you to death
If there's any franchise offering in Hollywood right now that could be deemed surprising, it's The Conjuring series. Branching off from a pair of tightly-made, old-fashioned haunted house stories beloved for not only their terrifying sense of style and empathetic characters, the adaptations of "real-life" case files by ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren don't seem well suited for the cinematic universe treatment. After all, what makes the two main entries in the franchise so fun is that we don't really know the motivations or backgrounds of the demons contained within, with their scare power coming not only from their spine-tingling design but also from the scenarios we insert them in within our minds. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. has sought to capitalize on the world-building of properties such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and stretch the allure of its demonic villains to feature-length origin stories. The results so far, two explorations of the history behind possessed doll Annabelle, have cheapened the mystery behind that very creepy character. The newest spin-off in the franchise, The Nun, is no exception.
Set in 1952, the film follows grumpy Father Burke (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight), a "miracle hunter" for the Catholic Church, as he is sent to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun in a local convent. He is instructed to bring along Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story), a young novitiate plagued by religious visions since her youth. Arriving at the convent, the pair and local peasant Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet, Elle) are quickly thrown into conflict with resident tormentor Valak (Bonnie Aarons), the main antagonist of The Conjuring 2 and a demon whose preferred form is that of a menacing nun who looks more like Marilyn Manson than Mother Superior.
What could have been a massively entertaining opportunity to go wild with the franchise's arguably most terrifying villain is instead more a by-the-numbers haunted house attraction seriously lacking in the narrative department. The aforementioned cheapening effect these origin stories have on the effectiveness of their spooky subjects is perhaps on its fullest display here, as Valak is reduced to a common castle spirit brought to our world by a cooped-up duke. There are some story threads here that could go to interesting places, such as Burke's guilt over the death of a boy during an exorcism, Irene's visions, or the fact that Valak's reawakening was brought on by the shelling of the abbey during World War II. Instead, they play as meaningless anecdotes geared more towards boosting the film's already overwhelming fixation on creating atmosphere.
Not to say that The Nun's flair for crafting a spooky playground isn't welcomed, since the film's production design and costuming is its strongest asset. While not particularly inspired, the foggy halls of the convent and its hellish inhabitants do have the markings of solid gothic horror elements. The film never feels particularly scary, as director Colin Hardy populates it with jump scares telegraphed from a mile away, but the ambiance is palpable. It's hard not to crack a smirk as our heroes are barraged in Dracula-style halls by hissing zombies and faceless sisters that have been given the proper attention to detail. It's just a shame none of it is put to particularly interesting use within the confines of its story. The Nun is all dressed up in a habit with nowhere to go.
The biggest sin of the film is that it forgets what made this franchise so popular: the strength of its characters. Anyone who tells you The Conjuring or its sequel do anything truly ground-breaking is selling you something. What makes them special is the empathy we feel for the Warrens and the families they are trying to protect, and that in turn is what makes their predicaments truly horrifying. It's one thing to have one of the Perron girls in the original film point into the dark and proclaim there's someone watching her. It's another to see a girl we've come to care for slowly break down in front of our eyes. There's no such nuance to be found here. Both Irene and Burke are stock characters who exist solely as targets for the house of horrors, while Frenchie is an often eye-rolling character included for some semblance of comedic relief in a film that would probably benefit without it. Bechir and Farmiga, who are usually engaging actors, are pretty hard to watch here, going through the motions with each passing line. That's a testament to how under-baked this script is.
The attempts to tie the film into the larger Conjuring universe are fumbling at best, with portions from other films tacked on in a way that makes these brief moments feel more like trailers than actual cohesive movie scenes. The jarring effect of these additions really drives home the pointlessness of the whole affair, as you realize there's no depth to the layers being piled on through this entry. Ultimately, like a distracted child at Sunday school, The Nun doesn't know where to direct its energies. Its serviceable, predictable popcorn fare born from stories far more worthy of the price of admission.