Less Whoopi, barely spooky.
The release of The Conjuring in 2013 had radical effects on the horror cinemascape – critics lauded it for being one of the best, scariest mainstream horrors in years. The film was based on a real-life case in which paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren visited a home whose inhabitants were being attacked by a vengeful spirit. It doesn’t hold up as well with repeat viewings, but there’s no denying the purity of some of the scares. James Wan is a huge mover in the franchise, and alongside creators Chad and Carey Hayes, gave birth to a series, which includes a direct sequel, and spin-offs focusing on the origins of the entities the Warrens went up against in their career. First we had two Annabelle movies, now we have The Nun, a character who first appeared in the haunted home of The Conjuring 2. But is she worthy of the feature film treatment? In short, no.
Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a priest with a dark and traumatic past is sent to notorious monastery following the mysterious suicide of a nun. Accompanying him is Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a young nun on the verge of taking her vows. With the help of local sweet-talker, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), they reach the abbey, where they are faced with a malevolent force in the form of an demonic nun.
The film opens relatively strongly – there’s a lovely little flashback to the previous movies which should clear up the happenings for any novices going in. Then we cut to the abbey, with two Sisters looking particularly frightened. Abel Korzeniowski undercuts this with some classically foreboding, operatic music, and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre frames them deliciously, smothered in the sort of fog that realistically doesn’t make any sense but is bloody cool to look at. There’s a little jump scare which falls flat, but in the end, it works supremely, bolstered by some frighteningly full-on imagery and a structure similar to The Woman In Black.
But Corin Hardy, the man in the director’s chair, doesn’t keep this scale of spookiness up whatsoever. Our introduction to Farmiga’s precious heroine is thoroughly clichéd, Frenchie is an off-putting, supposedly rugged rogue, and Father Burke is a poor man’s, Father Karras. After spending a fair amount of time pairing all these characters together, we embark upon a Middle-Earth-esque transition to the monastery, where the nightmare is set to begin. Speaking of nightmares, Irene is plagued by them, or as she calls them, “visions”, “a gift from God”. It’s a tired trope that could be utilised to gross-out, shocking extremes but is kept to a boringly minor component to her character.
There’s no doubt here that this is a gothic horror. The surroundings are starved of bright colours, accentuating the dark vibes of the unknown. The buried themes looking at the consequences of completely devoting yourself to religion are not necessarily subtle either, whether you’re forced to look at a beheaded Jesus, or a scene in which Irene lays down in the same way to a pile of ash, formerly a nun. But the problem with The Nun is it just doesn’t do enough with its ripe location, with the really good stuff occurring sparingly, such as an inspired cemetery sequence which will trigger anyone’s claustrophobia. Other than that though, there’s only so many times you can watch a jump scare set up with the exact same camera movements and feel the fright – credit to Hardy for his reluctance on cutting recklessly, opting for smoother, flowing camera work which does lend the film a certain polish.
Hardy constantly goes for over the shoulder shots, following our leads as they wander about the cobweb-ridden hallways, which does keep the suspense present at least, but he soon takes things too far. It’s the subtle things that work the best; the glimpses you’re not sure you actually seen, the gentle turning of a cross in the background. But the ramping up of CGI rarely equates to something horrifying, and it’s that exact pitfall the film falls into. The director isn’t aided by his screenplay either, penned by Gary Dauberman. The spaces between the ghost train moments rarely feel significant to the plot, reliant on exposition to try and give the film some sense of purpose, Chekhov’s Nuns (I’m sorry) and cringe-worthy attempts at comedy. There’s a healthy level of ambition in the finale, but the issues outweigh the successes, leaving you feeling a bit cheated. The horror of the titular demon (who also looses impact the more you see her) resided in the unknown, and this film tears down that ambiguity – kudos for managing to tie it exactly into The Conjuring by the credits, though.