There is an odd charm in watching Christian-themed horror films. Maybe it’s because they’re all so very similar: a priest-type character has to enter hostile territory to exorcise a demon. People die. Even so, in this heavily swamped industry where ‘horror’ has lost but all meaning, rare gems show up to give the genre a shot in the arm. James Wan’s The Conjuring was one such gem. It took the tried-and-tested ‘Christian’ horror films and gave them a little tumble, and coupled with some really good acting and directing, it was more than a decent watch. The series’ spinoff, The Nun, however, is only barely as good as the main entries.
The film starts ominously enough as two nuns enter an obviously unholy place in an otherwise holy abbey, with all the crosses and the warning all-too-subtly telling us of the dangers that lurk behind the doors. “You know what you must do”, the older nun says to the younger, and not long after, all hell breaks loose and the younger does what she must: kill herself. Thus begins our film.
Enter Father Anthony Burke (Demián Bichir), a self-proclaimed “miracle hunter” working for the Vatican. He is tasked to investigate the nun’s suicide and check if the abbey remains holy in what is one of the most on-the-nose Christian jargon-exposition scenes in recent history. Helping him are Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s sister), a Catholic novitiate, and ‘Frenchie’ (Jonas Bloquet), a charismatic farmer who was previously supplying the abbey with vegetables.
The grouping is fairly odd, what with 2 priest-types and a complete stranger going into unknown grounds to tackle an ancient evil, which takes the form of the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons) this time.
The change in setting from modern-day suburbs to post-WW2 Romania is a rather welcome addition to the series, and adds no small measure of freshness in how a horror film might tackle its demons and humans. The atmosphere of the film is eerie through and through, with the muted colours and near-perpetual darkness lighting the way for our characters to play out their roles, but the scares are largely little more than clichéd jumpscares and they’re not even subtle: in all but a handful of the actually scary bits, the film takes up the dreadful music up a few notches, allowing us to prepare for what is to come, reducing the impact somewhat.
On the other hand, when the scares do work, they are surprisingly effective; this is most apparent during a scene set in a chapel in the abbey, where the film blurs the line between what is real and what is a vision, followed by most of the third act. It is here that the film truly comes to its own.
Also a welcome change is the demon Valak. Unlike most horror demons, Valak actually has words to speak of for herself in addition to her usual demonic power set, making her quite understandably terrifying. Aarons really nails the role when she is on-screen, effortlessly portraying just how easily she toys with the holy people, who for the most part, are left to their devices as they both try to dig into the deeper parts of the mystery, bringing to mind one of the dialogues earlier in the film about keeping “secrets”.
Bichir, Farmiga and Bloquet, too, for their part, play out their roles convincingly and with no fair amount of conviction. When the film is relatively on edge (which is most of it), the players waste no ounce of energy in playing out their characters, without causing anything that would distract or break the immersion. However, there is a small case to be made against Farmiga and Bloquet. While her acting is not sub-par by any means, she simply fails to command the screen in the way her sister does in The Conjuring. Meanwhile, while Bloquet’s character is mostly a breath of fresh air, his comic timing somewhat dampens the stress of the scenes – barring one, which is particularly haunting.
And while the film is largely content in doing its own thing, with little more than a nod or two to The Conjuring films in form of the prologue and the ending, the film suffers for it. Its lack of self-awareness, although necessary, removes most of the consequence the plot should have had, even though it explains some critical plot threads that form the backbone of The Conjuring 2.
There is not much to complain about Colin Hardy’s directional sense here; the man clearly knows what he is doing for the most part, and uses his experience with The Hallow fairly competently. It’s just a shame he was handed a script that was just a shade under-developed and ever so slightly bonkers. It truly would have made a great addition to the franchise otherwise.
Overall, The Nun is a relatively admissible addition to The Conjuring universe. It manages to keep itself self-contained, though at the cost of a consequential plot, has acting that is better than it has any right to be, and is directed fairly well. Maybe, just maybe, if the film had a better sense of timing and slightly less comedy, it would have been a better one. As it stands, however, it’s at least better than Annabelle, and that counts for something.
Director: Colin Hardy
Cast: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet and Bonnie Aarons as Valak