The sinister sister from The Conjuring 2 was so chilling, she’s back with her very own spin-off prequel. But despite a hardworking cast and a forbidding setting, The Nun proves that the character is way more memorable out of her familiar environment than when she’s on her home turf.
The Nun begins and ends with clips from the Conjuring films, first to remind you where you’ve seen the title character before, and then to offer a tiny denouement that ties her back into the series’ overarching continuity. These segments are useful; they slot the film into its proper place in the Conjuring universe and provide a sly way to get Vera Farmiga and Taissa Farmiga (star of The Conjuring films and The Nun, respectively) into the same movie. Their characters may not overlap whatsoever, but the sisterly casting provides maybe the only subtext to be found in The Nun, which is overall a pretty heavy-handed, good-versus-evil story that throws very few curveballs.
So how do you fill up 96 minutes of a movie called The Nun? Well, there are an awful lot of scenes in underlit hallways filled with shadowy doorways, all the better for the nun to dramatically lurk and loom and occasionally show her yellow eyes and pointy teeth. After about the fifth or sixth time a dark, wimple-topped shape suddenly materialized in the frame, it dawned on me: the nun is boring.
The most exciting thing about her in The Conjuring 2, which is set 25 years after The Nun, was that she was totally, bizarrely out of place—like, why is this twisted religious symbol popping up in Lorraine Warren’s rec room, or working in cahoots with a British poltergeist? Ninety percent of The Nun is contained in a crumbling Romanian castle that could stunt-double for Dracula’s home sweet home. It makes sense, budget-wise. But it makes things way less dynamic than they could be. And even after you learn her backstory, the nun is still a snooze.
Last year’s Annabelle: Creation—which had the unenviable task of making the audience fear an inanimate object—was no masterpiece, but it still offered an entertaining explanation as to why that damn doll is so evil. All you get with The Nun is some disappointingly generic exposition involving ancient witchcraft and World War II, and the information is delivered so quickly it’s obvious you’re not supposed to let it sink in too much. Why should you, when it’s time for another scene of someone holding a torch or a lantern, quaking in fear, not realizing you-know-who is standing right behind them?
I’m being tough on The Nun because I like the Conjuring movies, and I really like the idea of a horror-movie multiverse that doesn’t just churn out formulaic sequels. And there’s actually some great stuff in The Nun, like Taissa Farmiga’s performance as Sister Irene, a novitiate who’s been drawn to the church by her disturbing visions, and Demián Bichir as the seasoned priest who’s tasked by the Vatican with investigating the “unusual phenomenon” surrounding a young nun’s suicide at the abbey. Obviously, Bonnie Aarons—who, fun fact, also played the terrifying creature living behind the diner in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive—rips into the title role with snarling gusto; the character may be doing the same thing over and over, and the malevolent musical cue that often marks her appearance is pretty corny (the audience at my screening started chuckling at it by the end), but Aarons never phones it in, especially when it’s time for a close-up.
Less successful is Jonas Bloquet as Frenchie, a local who helps the visiting duo while functioning as the movie’s comic relief...which, why does The Nun need laughs, exactly? Why does Sister Irene—who’s already dealing with some very heavy shit—have to endure unwanted flirting on top of that?
At any rate...another good thing about The Nun is that it’s wonderfully atmospheric. It leans very heavily on fog, crumbling walls, graveyards, black veils, and other go-to gothic symbols, but they lend the movie an old-fashioned vibe that makes it stand out stylistically, especially when compared to the other Conjuring movies. Director Corin Hardy is the one who was trying forever to do The Crow remake with Jason Momoa, and I can see why that project would also be in his wheelhouse.
Most importantly, though, if The Nun managed to unleash some decent frights, that could make up for its thin story. A few pee-your-pants moments might even help wave away the sinking feeling that maybe this character didn’t really need her own spin-off flick. But when it comes down to it, The Nun is just not that scary—and for a horror movie, that has got to be the ultimate sin.
The Nun is out Friday, September 7.