The best way to view the new horror movie “The Nun” is to regard it as a near homage to the campy, over-the-top Hammer films from the 60’s and 70’s. As a part of “The Conjuring”franchise, this sequel/prequel doesn’t have the seriousness of the previous four films. It also has issues with logic, consistency of tone, and character development. “The Nun” may boast two earnest, committed portrayals from stars Taissa Farmiga and Demian Bichir but the rest of the film is not nearly as sober.
The franchise has been more than a little suspect for a few years now since Warner Bros. hit a snag in attaining the rights to the casebook of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the heroic paranormal investigators who were the focus of the first film in 2013. After a smart sequel in 2016, the franchise started veering off into stories not dependent upon the Warren’s due to the difficult legal wrangling with their estate.
Thus, not one but two sequels – 2014’s “Annabelle” and 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation” – were based on an a tangentially related demonic doll in the Warren’s possession. Neither film made for great cinema, but at least they played straight. “The Nun” starts off that way, but quickly throws out all the stops, making for a Hammer-esque riff on the genre.
“The Nun” takes place in 1952 at an ancient monastery in Romania. There, two nuns are attacked by an unseen presence while searching for an ‘artifact’ hidden somewhere in the castle. Young Sister Victoria escapes the demon in hot pursuit by tying a noose around her neck and hurling herself out a window to avoid being possessed. The next morning, her hanging body is discovered by Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a local goat herder who delivers supplies to the monastery. Soon enough, the town is in dismay and the Vatican gets wind of the tragedy. Soon, the powers that be in Rome send two envoys to investigate the nun’s ‘suicide.’
Father Burke (Bichir) is called in because he’s a serious man with experience as an exorcist. Even though his last battle with the devil left a teen named Daniel dead on the floor, he’s the Pope’s go-to guy. Working with him is Sister Irene (Farmiga), a sprightly Catholic school teacher who has yet to take her final vows. The church has ordered her to accompany Burke due to her supernatural visions where she’s communicated with the other side.
As soon as the two investigators meet Frenchie, however, the movie starts to falter in tone and plotting. For starters, the young man flirts with the virginal Irene, coming off as a bit of a lecher far more akin to a teen sex comedy. Frenchie’s supposed to be haunted with nightmares of the dead nun even found hanging, but now seems to be thinking with his you-know-what. 20 minutes in, the film starts to toss away its inclinations towards a more serious examination of faith in the face of fiends.
Bichir and Farmiga try to keep a straight face and project determined intelligence even when the script betrays their characters with some dunderheaded behavior. The two meet with whom they think is the Mother Superior of the monastery but it’s clear to anyone that the shrouded woman with her halting voice isn’t human. The raspy-voiced specter might as well have a neon sign flashing over her announcing her evil, but Burke and Irene fail to finger her before it’s too late.
Throughout their stay, the two ‘detectives’ experience all kinds of run-ins with visions, specters, and other mysterious figures milling about, but they seem blithely clueless to it all. Wouldn’t they contact the local authorities, or at least only search the castle during the daytime? Even when Burke witnesses the specter of Daniel taunting him from the nearby graveyard, the veteran priest runs blindly into the darkness alone to investigate. Logical actions are tossed out the window as blatantly as Sister Victoria.
Even the best scene in the film is lessened by excess. Somehow Burke ends up buried alive in a casket in that cemetery, screaming for his life. His claustrophobia is palpable, especially since he’s running out of oxygen, but then the film throws in an errant snake and a coffin visit from the nun too. The scene ends up eliciting far too many laughs for its own good even though it started out with such vivid terror.
Frenchie returns and his ‘scaredy cat’ character continues to mine laughter when audiences should be on the edge of their seats. The drama gets broader and broader and the movie morphs into a veritable Hammer B frightener, overflowing with buckets of blood, bodies tossed about like rag dolls, and noise levels on the soundtrack that grate more than frighten.
The demon never can seem to settle on one form or another either, robbing the impact of the very title character herself. When it suits her, the vicious nun will not hesitate to take the form of an animal, cascading water, or even Irene.
Actress Bonnie Aarons was terrifying in a smattering of seconds as the homeless hag behind the Winkie’s diner in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”, yet here, she doesn’t register much at all as the titular “Nun.” Rather than let her strut her actorly stuff, the filmmakers mar Aaron’s take on the roll with far too many cheap and unnecessary CGI effects.
In fact, so much CGI and effects are thrown into the mix, not to mention secret passageways, vials of Christ’s blood, drownings, and even rabid snakes, it all becomes too hellzapoppin’ in its surplus. And yet, obvious things that could be capitalized on never are, like the fact that Taissa is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, the actress who plays Lorraine in the series. Something more could be made of that fact, or even their obvious resemblance, but it would seem that director Corin Hardy and screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who did the story here with James Wan, like excesses more than subtleties this go-round.
“The Conjuring” was one of the best horror movies of the last 20 years and the real-life casebook of the Warrens is such a natural source for sequel after sequel, it’s a shame Warner Bros. is marking time with inferior offerings like this one. Let’s hope their lawyers get on the stick and precure the rights quickly before another doll or nun or bucket of blood disappoints.
Check out the trailer for The Nun below: