Before we get to the verdict The Nun, let’s start with a little backstory: Back in 2015, a then-unknown filmmaker named Corin Hardy burst onto the scene with a nifty little creature feature called The Hallow. Mixing old-school practical FX with eerie Irish mysticism, the flick was like The Evil Dead for a new generation, a rallying cry for every kid who had ever made monsters in their garage. The intervening years gifted the intrepid Brit, and horror obsessive, a couple of goes at The Crow reboot before the project died once again in early 2018. Allegedly, for good this time.
And so it came to pass that Hardy should dip his toe into the ever-expanding Conjuring universe which has thus far, for anyone keeping a tally, gifted us more duds than classics. When it was announced that the dude behind The Hallow would be taking on a spinoff starring The Nun — easily the best character in the otherwise dull Conjuring 2 — it seemed we were in safe hands. If nothing else, at least the thing would be as practical as possible. It might be a studio movie, but it should still have that low budget flair.
The news isn’t all bad, although the film hinted at in those brilliant early teasers is not what The Nun turns out to be. It’s half that movie (Hardy’s movie, one suspects), half same ol’, same ol’ Conjuring stuff (something happened at the end that made me physically angry — you know what it is and you also know they should stop doing it). However, it’s not the worst of the year, as some are bleating. Definitely not. Hell, 2018 has already unleashed Slender Man upon us, and The Nun is worth ten of those blatant and cynical cash-grabs.
The year is 1952 (the first sign of trouble, to be honest) and, in a divertingly spooky prologue, a couple of nuns grapple with some unseen terror that subsequently leaves one dead by paranormal entity and the other to commit the ultimate sin by taking her life, seemingly to avoid its grasp. Soon, Father Burke (played by Demián Bichir, confusingly using his own accent in spite of that name) is whisked off to Rome where the always welcome Michael Smiley gets a lovely cameo and all is right with the world for a moment.
Burke is sent to fetch young Sister Irene (American Horror Story‘s Taissa Farmiga, whose sister, Vera, plays Lorraine Warren in the Conjuring movies) who, thanks to her weird visions, can assist him in his quest. The two head off to Romania where they pick up a reluctant local, nicknamed Frenchy (no relation to the superior Grease character), who warns them that there’s evil up in that there abbey. He also casually, mentions the only nun he’s ever even seen about the place was the one whose body he found. Things do not go well from there.
The Nun includes a little refresher right at the outset, for anybody new to the Conjuring universe. Hang on, who goes to see these films besides fans of the franchise? Is there a large contingent of religious horror fanatics eager to see a demon nun? The issue isn’t that the film is bad, because it isn’t really, at least not compared to some of the other rubbish we’ve been subjected to this year (see: Truth Or Dare). The problem is that it doesn’t really have any reason to exist, or even any mythology to it beyond “nun is scary and lurks in background.”
The location is terrific, and credit must be given to Hardy for insisting on shooting in Romania in a really creepy building that looks like it could fall apart at any minute. There’s a decent sense of geography, and the abbey feels suitably maze-like and confusing. The fifties setting makes no sense, though. It would’ve been better to set the thing when all the bad stuff was originally happening and it made sense for nuns to be living as though there was still jousting going on outside. As it stands, the time period adds nothing to the atmosphere.
The performances aren’t hammy per se, though Frenchy’s presence as the comic relief begins to grate, especially considering everything else is played completely straight. There is a tactility to the flick, particularly when it comes to people crawling out of things or jumping on characters unexpectedly (which happens A LOT). The Nun is more tense than scary, but it’s eerie enough that it captures some of that old-school Hammer charm even when it goes a bit silly, as with a Buffy-lite discussion of a Hell-mouth opening.
The score booms authoritatively, demanding we take it seriously, and there’s some legitimately great imagery, such as the classic crucifix turning upside down all by itself (only this time it’s also on fire!), a moonlit graveyard filled with fog, and a line of hanging crosses letting our heroes know they’re in grave danger. Hardy stages most of it very well, particularly during one creepy chat with a nun who refuses to lift her black veil and show her face, and that great Exorcist 3-aping scare that was, unfortunately, spoiled by the trailer.
Every time it threatens to get into properly spooky territory, however, The Nun‘s script lets it down completely. Gary Dauberman, who was also responsible for penning Annabelle, is credited alongside series creator James Wan, and it seems neither of them can go one minute without a character stating the bleedin’ obvious. Frenchy actually says outright, several times, a variation of “Coming here was a mistake” or “This is a bad place” or “We are all going to die because of that creepy nun who keeps appearing behind us.”
A running joke about Sister Irene not having taken her vows yet is the most well-handled element, which is really saying something. It’s tough to criticise Hardy for what’s onscreen, though, when he was clearly doing the best with what he had. At every turn, when the portentous doom starts creeping in, the script saps the movie of all tension. Likewise, there are absolutely no surprises with the final battle, or with how everything turns out, or with who survives. It’s all so predetermined this might as well be the MCU.
Another problem for Hardy, or any filmmaker taking on this material, is that The Nun herself isn’t really that interesting of a presence. Even played by the legendary Bonnie Aarons, who cursed our collective nightmares in one of the all-time great jump scares in Mulholland Dr., there isn’t much to her beyond standing there and having pointy teeth. Sure, she does a bit more than Annabelle, but that wouldn’t exactly be hard. Her mythos isn’t explained enough to intrigue that, dare I say it, a proper origin story may have done her more justice.
The Nun isn’t exactly a missed opportunity, then, so much as it’s a waste of an interesting filmmaker’s talents. Hardy has shown off what he can do with real people gussied up and squirming around in the dirt, and it’s in similar moments here, that his movie kind of takes flight. There’s a great moment with The Nun emerging out of the water that plays like the money shot of a horrible creature and it’s the purest few seconds in the whole film. Whenever this flick isn’t playing by franchise rules, it sparks a little bit.
Farmiga and Bichir make a fine double act, both of them bringing more gravitas to their roles than the tired and derivative script allows. The Nun makes less of an impact, but it could hardly be seen to be either Aarons’ fault, or that of the fine makeup artists who made her look so intimidating coming out of that painting in the first place. The real trouble is, that was about as scary as the character was ever going to be. But it took the wasting of time and resources on this film to really make that clear.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Corin Hardy
Writer(s): Gary Dauberman, James Wan
Stars: Taissa Farmiga, Demián Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons
Release date: September 7, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Atomic Monster
Length: 96 minutes