When The Conjuring debuted in 2013, no one anticipated that it would become a successful horror franchise. Based upon documented hauntings chronicled by real life, Vatican-dispatched paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, audiences returned to be scared witless by genuine scares and good writing in the films that followed. And now The Nun – the most hyped film of the franchise to date – has arrived.
The film is set in Romania in 1952. The Vatican dispatches Father Burke (Demian Bichir), who has had experience with exorcising demons in the past, and postulant nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, sister of franchise star Vera Farmiga) to the Carta Monastery to investigate the sudden suicide of a nun. Upon arrival, they learn from their secular guide Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) that the Monastery is known as a dark, cursed place to the people of his Romanian village. Particularly now that a nun has taken her life there.
During their investigation, Father Burke and Sister Irene learn that the grounds are not truly holy due to the demonic rites that were conducted there, which have unleashed the demon Valek – a defiler of life, who is set to destroy all that is good in the world. Oh, and that nuns be scary.
In a franchise that has managed to successfully scare people with stories based around actual events and haunted items, this is the first time the producers have decided to step outside of that arena and make a film based on a fictional story. The largest problem with The Nun is that this should have worked, but doesn’t. This is not the first time a horror movie has involved evil nuns or a battle of good versus evil and when done right these themes can lead to effective scares that truly rattle you.
Here, the fictionalized story comes off as an half-hearted attempt to ham-fist a film into fitting into a franchise, just for the sake of milking more money out of that franchise’s fan base. Think of this film as the horror equivalent of Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach. That was the first Police Academy movie without star Steve Guttenburg (because he knew the ship was sinking and there were some things even he wouldn’t do to for a paycheck) but “HEY! It has that funny mouth sounds guy in it! So come and spend your money!” The Nun is based around the same principle, only replace “funny mouth sounds guy” with “that scary-ass nun.”
And here is where the film commits one of its biggest sins, besides hyping itself with all the gusto of a bad superhero movie. This film is named The Nun. It is about a really scary nun. The same nun that terrified many people, including myself, in The Conjuring 2. So when you see a film named after said nun, which is apparently about said nun, you expect to see said nun a good portion of the film.
The Nun had more screen time in The Conjuring 2 than in the film that is named after her. Maybe I am funny that way, but when I go see a film called The Nun, I expect The Nun to be in it for more than five mins of screen time. It is like going to see a Dracula movie and then you do not see Dracula until the final scene of the film!
Director Colin Hardy seems to have spent so much time on making the Gothic aesthetic of this film ooze off of the screen with the thickness of dry ice that he completely forgot to tell a good story, instruct the actors on how to give believable performances, and, most importantly, deliver optimal scares that were not already revealed in the movie trailer. You know a horror movie is not doing its job effectively when you find yourself sitting there thinking about what would be the best vegetables to put in a stew on a cold winter’s day during what is meant to be the most climactic moment of the movie. (Yes, this actually happened to me.)
Bichir and Farmiga have no real screen chemistry together as Father Burke and Sister Irene and seem to be reading their lines for the first time on the set. The biggest disappointment here, however, is Farmiga, who comes off as an understudy who was suddenly thrown on stage and now must pay for never really rehearsing her part. I should note, however, this is an indictment of Hardy’s direction (or lack thereof) rather than an appraisal of Farmiga’s talents as an actress. Anyone who has seen her on American Horror Story knows that she has real acting chops just like her sister, but her talents are not utilized at all here.
The greatest failing of The Nun is precisely how it places itself into the franchise. I am not going to reveal how, but know it is so utterly forced into the narrative, that you expect to see Annie Wilkes from Misery stand up half-way through the film and complain about the continuity or shouting something like “The cemetery has better plots than this movie!”
The best thing I can say about The Nun is that it does look good. Hardy mentioned that he wanted the film to resemble the early days of Hammer Horror, and in that respect he succeeded. The film is so Gothic you expect it to start slowly swaying to “Bela Legosi Is Dead” while smoking clove cigarettes. I am sucker for this look when it is done right (see Sleepy Hollow), but unlike the Hammer Horror Films of yore, The Nun doesn’t have an engaging story or Christopher Lee to support it.
On top of all this, the film also seems torn between wanting to scare the bejesus out of us and wanting to thrill us as if it were an action/adventure piece ala Indiana Jones and the Temple Of The Forbidden Nun. What could have been a great horror movie instead wound up being the Cars 2 of horror films. Let’s hope that future entries in this franchise do not continue this trend. Assuming there are any.