Director: Corin Hardy
Cast: Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons
Runtime: 1 hr 37 mins
Released By: Warner Bros
Opening Day: 6 September 2018
Synopsis: When a young nun at a cloistered abbey in Romania takes her own life, a priest with a haunted past and a novitiate on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate. Together they uncover the order’s unholy secret. Risking not only their lives but their faith and their very souls, they confront a malevolent force in the form of the same demonic nun that first terrorized audiences in “The Conjuring 2,” as the abbey becomes a horrific battleground between the living and the damned.
Seeing as how one of the most, if not the most, terrifying things about ‘The Conjuring 2’ was a demonic nun with sheet-white face, sunken but glowering eyes and ghostly habit, it is to be expected that the makers of the hit supernatural horror series would follow up their spinoff of ‘Annabelle’ with yet another origin story of this very character. So ‘The Nun’ reaches back to early 1950s Romania to explore how that evil came to be born, and in the hands of director Corin Hardy, is styled as a ‘70s throwback to gothic horror with characters skulking around ancient catacombs amid religiously profaned iconography. Along that vein therefore, it is lush, operatic, atmospherically chilly and complemented by plenty of jump-scares, but those looking for the sort of classy set-pieces that James Wan choreographed in both ‘Conjuring’ movies will be well-advised to look elsewhere.
Whether that was the intention or the consequence of a bare script by Gary Dauberman (who also penned ‘It’ and the ‘Annabelle’ films) is unclear, but it is patently obvious that there isn’t much by way of plotting here. Indeed, the bare-bones set-up sees Father Burke (Demian Bichir), a haunted priest with a tragic exorcism in his past, and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a young progressive-minded novitiate who had experienced visions as a child, sent by the Vatican to investigate the circumstances behind the apparent suicide of a young nun at a secluded abbey. The duo team up with the French-Canadian villager Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who had first discovered the crow-eaten body of the nun when he was delivering supplies from the village to the convent. Unlike our heroes, we are under no illusion that the abbey has come under the grip of a powerful demon known as Valak, so the mystery isn’t about whether the place remains holy but how it became unholy in the first place.
Like we said, there is little by way of narrative development here, so Hardy structures his film as a series of eerie set pieces. One of them sees Frenchie being attacked by the demonic nun while walking through the woods, and eventually warding it off by plucking a wooden cross off a grave in the ground; another has Father Burke getting buried alive in an empty wooden coffin outside the sanctuary, and Sister Irene racing against time to locate his grave in order to free him; and yet another finds Sister Irene and the rest of the nuns at the abbey praying fervently in the chapel while an unseen evil force hovers around them and finally carves a pentagram onto her back. Each is skilfully executed all right, making use of light and shadow for the obvious but nonetheless effective jump scare, and complemented by French horror cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s efficient mix of slow pans and dolly zooms.
But those wondering just what Valak is up to will probably be disappointed. Even up to the over-the-top finale when Father Burke, Sister Irene and Frenchie bring the fight to Valak, it isn’t exactly clear what is motivating the demon or what it is after. Worse still, the movie itself is inconsistent from scene to scene just when the demon advances and when it retreats: at times it seems like the invocation is God is necessary and at others it seems like just a good old-fashioned shotgun will do the trick. Just as murky are the human characters themselves, for which the movie never quite establishes why they were picked to investigate the case, beyond Father Burke’s vague statement that the Vatican does things “for its own reasons”. Dauberman’s script also likes to split Father Burke and Sister Irene up to go on their own little demon-hunting venture, but ignores to explain away why they would go against common sense to simply stick together to fight the evil.
So as much as we were looking forward to a standalone feature on that demonic nun from ‘The Conjuring 2’, we can’t quite say that we were satisfied with ‘The Nun’. On its own, it is an appropriately atmospherically drenched blend of religious mystery and old-school adventure, but there’s nothing within that is nearly as suspenseful or terrifying as ‘The Conjuring’ or even its sequel. Fans will no doubt appreciate the connection back to the first ‘Conjuring’, but that alone is not likely to be enough to compensate for the mild disappointment from the relative merits of this movie vis-à-vis its series predecessors. If there was any worry these spinoffs would overshadow the main ‘Conjuring’ movies, ‘The Nun’ at least makes sure after three such movies (including the two ‘Annabelles’) that such fears were unfounded; whether that’s a good or bad thing for the Conjuring Cinematic Universe as it is known is suspect.
(A series of well-mounted eerie set pieces cannot quite make up for the lack of plot or character complexity in this throwback to '70s gothic horror, which is also decidedly inferior next to the two 'Conjuring' movies)
Review by Gabriel Chong