Written by: Gary Dauberman (story & screenplay), James Wan (story)
Directed by: Corin Hardy
Starring: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, and Jonas Bloquet
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I'm afraid there is something very wrong with this place..."
It’s appropriate—and perhaps not at all surprising—that the fifth entry in James Wan’s Conjuring universe leans heavily on familiar habits. Since its inception in 2013, this franchise has thrived on a proven formula that finds various filmmakers blending timeless ingredients: a spooky location, an indelible mythology surrounding a supernatural entity, compelling characters, all in the service of slick, sturdily-crafted productions. Some—most notably Wan’s two efforts—have done so with more aplomb than others (looking squarely at you, Annabelle), but the point remains: breaking the mold here is, at best, a tertiary concern, landing somewhere behind impeccable craftsmanship and universe-building. The Nun does little to disavow you of this notion: once again, the notes are changed, but the song remains the same, though I have to admit this rendition could use a little more urgency and showmanship to accentuate its familiarity.
While the specific aesthetic and vibe are somewhat new to this franchise, it’s familiar to anyone who’s toured the vintage horror block: you’ve got an isolated, possibly—okay, definitely—cursed abbey resting in the secluded hills, looming over a Romanian village full of spooked locals who don’t even like to speak of the place, just like in several Hammer horror classics. Lurking within is a vaguely demonic presence taking the form of a decrepit nun (the same one glimpsed in The Conjuring 2) who terrorizes the inhabitants: we watch as one poor nun is dragged away into the darkness (this always happens), but not before she issues a cryptic warning to a comrade, who then swiftly grabs a rope to fashion a makeshift noose before jumping to her death. When word of this grisly episode reaches The Vatican, a mysterious cabal (there’s always a mysterious cabal), they dispatch a troubled priest (Demian Bichir) haunted by a past failure (there’s always a troubled priest haunted by a past failure) and a young nun-in-training (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate and confirm if the abbey still rests on consecrated ground.
As the duo’s affable, helpful local guide (Jonas Bloquet) points out, the answer to that should be obvious: after all, nuns don’t tend to just commit suicide, nor do abbeys tend to attract the sort of bad reputation this one has garnered over the years. We know it not only because we’ve already seen the titular nun raising hell but also because we’ve seen variations of this tale within this very franchise, not to mention scores of other horror movies. You should never enter a foreboding patch of woods in the first place to answer this kind of question, nor should you press on when the abbey’s threshold greets you with a fresh trail of mysterious blood. When you discover the deceased nun’s body mysteriously resting in an upright position—contrary to your tour guide’s claims that he simply laid her body upon the ground—it’s not exactly an invitation to stick around. Obviously, our heroes here do just that because they’re on a literal mission from God to uncover the source of this particular demonic infestation.
And that’s fine, at least in theory: again, this franchise has built its reputation on slapping a new varnish on the well-worn genre tradition, and The Nun is ostensibly no different. Forgive the obvious turn of phrase, but the devil is very much in the details of this franchise, which has flourished on intriguing lore, worthwhile characters, and meticulously crafted scare sequences. Director Corin Hardy screenwriter and franchise mainstay Gary Dauberman are keen to honor the formula, if only in the most minimal terms possible—which is to say the mythology is half-baked, the characters are serviceable, and the scares are a bit mechanical at this point. There’s just enough here to outpace that thudding sense of familiarity for this outing, but not quite enough to convince you that future entries won’t run into a similar dilemma and require a little bit more vigor than this one boasts.
What truly anchors the main entries in this franchise—and what the spin-offs have largely lacked—are the captivating lead performances from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Ed and Lorraine Warren. Setting aside the somewhat squeamish implications of lionizing these two controversial figures, The Conjuring works because they feel genuinely invested in these characters. Where most franchises tend to be hijacked by their monsters, this one has its cake and eats it too: the Warrens keep their spotlight in the main features, while the ghouls are free to roam about in the spin-offs. In the latter—and in The Nun especially—the protagonists feel more like pieces on a chess board, mostly existing to be maneuvered into the direct path of the titular spirits.
While Bichir, Farmiga, and Blogquet make for a fine trio here, they often do so in spite of an undercooked script that gives them enough space to develop an easygoing rapport without ever making these characters feel vitally important. You like them well enough, but it’s difficult to imagine being truly invested in them when they’re drawn in such broad strokes. “Priest haunted by a previous exorcism” barely qualifies as a character; at this point, that’s just an auto-piloted word salad for the most basic pitch imaginable, and while tapping Bichir (and his fellow performers) is inspired, it’s ultimately similar to a McDonald’s “gourmet” menu . Sure, it looks prestigious, but, deep down, you know you’re being served the same old slab of reheated meat from an assembly line.
The Nun fares slightly better in delivering the expected, signature scares, especially during the early-going, when Hardy captures the wild, manic energy that’s often defined this series. His camera spryly roams through the abbey during the film’s inciting incident, creating a frenzied, off-kilter verve that climaxes with the staggering shot of a nun plummeting to her death. The proceedings continue to be fairly unrelenting: shortly upon their arrival at the abbey, the priest endures a graveyard freak-out that’s so good that it momentarily convinces you that The Nun is not here to fuck around. At the very least, it appears to be very eager to indulge some cheap, gory thrills in the tradition of the Eurotrash scene’s hallowed, blood-soaked heyday. Maybe that sounds a bit contrary to what this franchise usually offers, but it’s a welcome new flavor while it lasts here.
Unfortunately, though, The Nun struggles to maintain that energy throughout, partially by design. Hardy is rightfully insistent on capturing Wan’s signature, slow burn style, and he deftly allows the audience to soak in the haunting surroundings: the cobwebbed corridors, the ominous, almost ethereal presence of the abbey’s head nun, the impossibly menacing exterior of the structure itself. Less purposeful, however, is the altogether rudderless middle act, where the proceedings slow to a crawl: once the appeal of this macabre sightseeing wears off, you find yourself waiting for The Nun to go somewhere. Once it does, Dauberman’s script resorts to the usual methods of filling in the backstory gaps, as characters engage in cryptic conversations with locals, dig through dusty archives full of mysterious documents, or conveniently find pertinent artifacts from a recently uncovered gravesite. Some flashbacks—including one that conjures up something resembling the Knights Templar lore—further illuminate matters but stop just short of explaining everything, almost as if a future franchise entry might be built around it.
Whatever the reason, The Nun suffers where it should flourish the most: with a title character that’s already been launched into the zeitgeist before ever headlining its own film. After briefly appearing in The Conjuring 2 and Annabelle: Creation, this unholy entity is primed to take center stage here, only to be weirdly sidelined for much of the runtime. Its history is weirdly glossed over and vaguely sketched in obvious terms, with a portal to hell (there’s always a portal to hell) that was reopened during the second World War emerging as a key detail. If it sounds like Hardy was given free rein to remake Soavi’s The Church within the confines of The Conjuring universe, that’s about half-right: the setup is virtually identical, but the punchline isn’t nearly as delirious (suffice to say, a horde of random visitors doesn’t descent upon the abbey to serve as demon fodder here).
Instead, you’re left with the underwhelming feeling that The Nun whiffs on an opportunity to firmly entrench its ghoul into the horror canon. Despite her already indelible appearance (and actress Bonnie Aarons is once again suitably creepy), she simply doesn’t have the sort of presence you’d expect: for most of the film, she’s rendered a vague threat, and though Hardy rightfully confines her to shadows and has her lurk in the background of the frame, the nun fails to leave an impression that separates her from similar specters in recent memory. Considering the two-movie build here, it’s a bit anticlimactic, though I suppose it’s quite easy to assume that this won’t be the last of the character since she’ll probably re-appear in both a sequel and a future Conjuring movie, at least if this is any indication.
While it doesn’t all quite come together, there is a lot to like scattered about in The Nun. Between this and The Hallow, Hardy’s demonstrable talents have established him as a noteworthy emerging talent, capable of crafting striking images and dread atmosphere that make an otherwise unremarkable film worthwhile. The Nun evokes the gothic overtures of bygone eras, as Maxime Alexandre’s photography and Abel Korzeniowski’s choral score conspire for some unsettling—if not fleeting—moments of vintage horror techniques: ominous camera glides, expressionist shadowplay, and some downright macabre imagery that momentarily reminds you of the film’s potential. Unfortunately, Hardy and company are almost too restrained, as these moments rarely payoff in anything more substantial than predictable—and, at this point, aggravating—jump scares, most of which lack the playful, theatrical sense of showmanship associated with this franchise. I found myself wishing The Nun weren’t trying to be so damn respectable: sure, it’s the sort of movie that trots out blasphemous imagery (there’s always a scene where crosses turn upside-down, you know) but doesn’t quite commit to being nasty.
Of course, one could argue that nastiness isn’t this franchise’s game, and The Nun feels expressly crafted so as to not upset the Conjuring applecart. With the exception of a pair of bookends featuring footage from previous films, it’s a standalone effort, albeit one that’s easily identifiable as an entry in this franchise. Wan himself might not be at the helm, but his house style remains the guiding force for these spin-offs, which continue to feel like brand extensions more than anything. By the end of the film, The Nun is reduced to a literal puzzle piece, as the entire film playfully answers a question that nobody ever really asked. It’s admittedly clever and highlights the appeal of a shared universe where various Warren cases intertwine to create the impression of event horror filmmaking.
For better and for worse, The Conjuring universe has achieved that, and while I’m predisposed to admire such ambitious franchise-building, The Nun leaves me hoping that future entries will dare to break a mold that’s become a bit too precious and stale. In other words, a movie about the time the Warrens investigated a werewolf might be a nice change of pace. Just saying.
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