The Conjuring franchise, the horror mythology loosely (sometimes very loosely) taking its cues from real people and events, has had its ups and downs, including the main films, the Annabelle spin-off and now an origin story of sorts with The Nun. So far the franchise has been a mixture of genuinely creative scares and simplistic template terrors. The Conjuring itself was a well-received fear flick but its sequel essentially hijacked the true story of the UK’s Enfield poltergeist and made returning mainstays Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) the saviors of the troubled family rather than the day-trip visitors to the premises they were in real life. Equally it reinvented the entire ‘third act’ and shoehorned CGI monsters and references to a demon called Valak and visions of a corrupted nun into the mix for no other reason than franchise branding.
The Nun presses pause and dials back the chronology to the Romania of the 1950s and presents an origin story of sorts for that pesky wimpled visitation that so vexes Lorraine in contemporary times. Instead of Rhode Island or London of the 1970s, we’re dropped into eastern Europe (Transylvannia and Bucharest effectively standing in for Romania) that’s recovering from the still recent World War II and which is a mix of rural poverty and clinging superstitions. It’s a good mix and locale, ripe for some drama of the human and inhuman variety… at least potentially.
However the result is barely on par with what’s come before: essentially a film full of bad habits and hoary tropes, some of which are effective and fun, some of which feel lazier and uninspired. There’s definitely something to be said for quality, old school scares (the likes of The Haunting of Hill House proved as much) but unless they are executed with flair, imagination and surrounded by something approaching a decent story, the ‘Boo!’ factor tends to fizzle out quickly. The Nun clings to formula yet feels like a film desperately trying to emulate the qualities of the Hammer era by merely upping the sfx budget. Nuns hovering around dark corridors and inappropriately morphing into demons with portents of doom and damnation certainly have their place – more often than not a crypt – but after a while, that’s ALL that’s happening here – and with little real rhyme or reason. Spooky, yes, in a limited, predictable way. Scary, really not so much.
Which is a shame because much of the first third of the film is quite promising, setting up likable characters a good mystery and merely hinting at something very wrong in the unconventional convent that was glimpsed pre-credits. Apostate nun Sister Irene is decently played by Taissa Farmiga, daughter of Vera – so you can draw your own conclusions about the character lineage hinted at here – and she manages to have both naive innocence and slight rebellious natures needed. Demián Bichir’s is the dry-humoured, weathered Vatican investigator, Father Burke, a devout believer in his faith but also wise to the ways of man and beast and Jonas Blouqet makes an engaging local ‘Frenchie’, the unlucky deliverer of food and supplies to the convent who first discovers the body that subsequently draws everyone else in. There’s an element of easy, gallows humour between the group that feels organic to the characters rather than the more usual scripted snark. But once through the gates, the film spends too much time dividing the characters off to face their own individual challenges and visions of horror and it’s only when they come back together that there’s any spark of life in the face of death.
The film essentially devolves into a conveyer-belt of interchangeable set-pieces, usually with claws and withered faces emerging from the darkness and post-production effects adding to the atmosphere, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all – and the result feels more like Scooby Doo meets The Exorcist than anything chilling.
The Nun is released on to DVD on 4th December (US) and 14th January (UK).