The Nun is one of the year’s better mainstream horror films.
The Nun, Corin Hardy’s standalone horror film/prequel to The Conjuring 2/sequel-and-also-prequel to Annabelle: Creation is an often-striking chiller that nonetheless stretches the limits of what a “cinematic universe” can truly encapsulate. And though it is tonally inconsistent, the weirder, wackier elements of The Nun are welcome in the often painfully serious Conjuring universe.
If there’s any letdown here, it’s that James Wan, whose gothic sensibilities boosted the two Conjuring films (as well as their cousins, the first two Insidious films) is not as involved as he was in previous entries in the series, and his absence is felt. Wan, who is off putting his finishing touches on the Aquaman film, created modern gothic masterworks with his two Conjuring films, emphasizing decaying landscapes, creaky mansions, feminine heroics (and villainy) and inventive yet recognizable religious themes. The bones of The Nun reflect a Wan-assisted foundation, yet it is a pity to not see the film in his hands, given how abundantly it incorporates elements with which he excels.
Said plot follows Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, “American Horror Story” standout and sister of The Conjuring star Vera Farmiga) and Father Burke (A Better Life’s Demián Bichir), two Vatican representatives sent to a remote Romanian monastery to investigate the apparent suicide of a nun. There, they are somewhat-inexplicably aided by a French Canadian named Maurice (a marvelous Jonas Bloquet), though he’s referred to as “Frenchie.” Together, they face Valak, a demon masquerading as the titular nun. The film is set in 1952, making it the first film in the Conjuring/Annabelle/Nun shared universe, though parts of the second Annabelle film took place earlier.
Production values are – as they are with the rest of the series outside the original Annabelle – top notch, and the performances are effective, even when the roles themselves aren’t written with much heft. However, the fear itself relents too often, which is odd when considering that director Hardy’s previous film, The Hallow, ratchets up its horror quickly and never backs down. The problem is Gary Dauberman’s script, which cannot seem to settle on whether it wants to be completely-horrific, comedically-horrific or action-horrific, and isn’t purely any of those.
Another element to consider is the film’s mythology. While Hardy’s The Hallow boasted an excellent, understated backstory, The Nun is caught between trying to stand on its own feet and being a valuable franchise-player. The film’s concluding moments boast some exciting connections to the rest of the series, which will please hardcore Conjuring-universe fans but potentially confuse the uninitiated. This is precisely what happened in the final moments of the Dauberman-written Annabelle: Creation, and one wonders he’s simply responding to a studio directive in order to maintain a cohesive “cinematic universe.” While the financial rewards may certainly be abundant, from a narrative standpoint it feels a bit tacked on.
Several of the jump scares are effective, but The Nun misses its opportunity to be more subversive. The subject matter alone – demonically possessed nuns – is both a goldmine and a minefield in terms of a canvas. The Nun plays it far too safe, sheltering its characters and the audiences despite its R rating.
The Nun is one of the year’s better mainstream horror films, but like so many other films, it is hurt by the fact that it doesn’t fulfill its potential. It appears to be the norm for Conjuring-universe films to get a sequel, so here’s hoping that the next incarnation has more Wan in it.