The Nun is a thinly-sketched Conjuring spinoff that's light on real scares, but offers enough stylish atmosphere to make up (some of) the difference.
Trading in the creaky old houses and haunted apartments from the previous Conjuring movies for a decaying monastery, The Nun is certainly the "biggest" installment in the horror franchise yet. The Conjuring, of course, started out as a single film (very) loosely inspired by the exploits of real-life paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren, but has since evolved into an entire cinematic universe of sequels and spinoffs. James Wan has served as the architect for this property since the beginning and he remains involved here as a writer and producer, assisting second-time feature director Corin Hardy (The Hallow). However, even with Wan's creative input, this quasi-prequel lands somewhere in the middle on the Conjuring movie quality scale. The Nun is a thinly-sketched Conjuring spinoff that's light on real scares, but offers enough stylish atmosphere to make up (some of) the difference.
Set in 1952, The Nun follows Father Burke (Demián Bichir) - a priest who specializes in the supernatural - and soon-to-be nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) as they travel to the Abbey of St. Carta in Romania, on the Vatican's orders. There, the pair attempt to uncover the truth behind the apparent suicide of a nun who resided at the mysterious and remote building. Aiding them along the way is Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the fellow who delivers supplies to the Abbey... and the only person from the closest village who's willing to visit the supposedly-cursed building.
Upon reaching the Abbey, Burke and Irene are quick to realize that something is terribly wrong with this place and find themselves under attack by the dangerous (and demonic) being that hides within its walls. Armed with nothing more than their inner strength, faith, and unnatural powers that Irene possesses yet doesn't fully understand, the duo set out to learn the truth about this creature, so that they might defeat it at long last. But is it already too late to stop this terrible monster?
Scripted by Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation screenwriter Gary Dauberman (from a story he cowrote with Wan), The Nun provides both a backstory for Valak (aka. the titular demon nun, who previously appeared in The Conjuring 2) and a standalone mystery, set against the striking backdrop of the St. Carta Abbey. These narrative and world-building elements are simple and a little silly overall, but serve the film's main interest: creating a rich sense of Gothic atmosphere, in the vein of old-school Hammer Horror movies about creatures like Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. Indeed, The Nun's fog-ridden primary setting is brought to often gorgeously macabre life on the big screen, thanks to the rich production design by Jennifer Spence and cinematography by Maxime Alexandre - both of whom also worked on Annabelle: Creation and make excellent use of shadow and light with their contributions here.
Unfortunately, The Nun generally skimps on developing its themes about faith and the struggle to keep dark forces at bay (both the mundane and fantastical variety), in order to move along to the next creepy set piece or sequence. Similarly, the film doesn't take the time to paint Father Burke's troubled history and/or Sister Irene's abilities in anything other than broad strokes, making it feel all the more like an exercise in style over substance. As indicated earlier, though, those set pieces are rather slick-looking and justification enough to see this one in IMAX (though the format is not a necessity here). The Nun also tends to be louder and more in-your-face with its jump scares than Conjuring films past, resulting in an experience that's less spooky, but still entertaining as a horror blockbuster and benefits from the enhanced audio of IMAX (especially the ominous score by Penny Dreadful's Abel Korzeniowski).
Like the story, there's not a whole lot of depth to the characters or their arcs in The Nun. Burke and Irene are both pretty archetypical protagonists (see: the world-weary priest and independent-minded novice), though they certainly benefit from being played by talented character actor Bichir and American Horror Story's Farmiga (who's also the younger sister of Conjuring lead Vera Farmiga, as it were). Bloquet likewise brings some welcome charm to his role as the cocky yet good-natured Frenchie - even though the character winds up feeling somewhat under-used in the end. Those three serve as the main leads here, with most every other cast member amounting to a glorified extra. The exception, of course, is that of Valak itself, who is once again brought to terrifically sinister and otherwise freaky life through a near-silent performance by Bonnie Aaron.
On the whole, The Nun isn't as well-crafted as Conjuring 1 & 2 and Annabelle: Creation, but is noticeably more stylized and enjoyable than the original Annabelle. Hardy further helps to compensate for the film's lack of substance by incorporating some very James Wan-esque technical flourishes and camerawork into the proceedings, thus delivering a relatively low-budget horror thrill ride that looks good (some dodgy CGI aside). The Nun also works as a standalone movie for the large part and avoids leaning too heavily on its ties to the bigger Conjuring universe. However, while the film succeeds in expanding the franchise's greater mythology, its connections to the earlier Conjuring movies don't really enrich their narratives or add new layers of meaning to their stories.
Still, as far as September horror films go, The Nun offers enough eerie fun to pass the time before the heavy-hitters start arriving closer to Halloween - though it's not a must-see, by that same count. Even so, it's nice to see The Conjuring films are beginning to branch out a bit from their haunted house formula and exploring different subgenres and styles of supernatural horror, starting with Hardy's Hammer Horror-inspired romp. Here's to hoping Dauberman has even more success with his directing debut on next year's Night at the Museum-style installment, Annabelle 3.
The Nun is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 96 minutes long and is rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!
- The Nun (2018) release date: Sep 07, 2018