Synopsis – A priest with a haunted past and a novice on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate the death of a young nun in Romania and confront a malevolent force in the form of a demonic nun.
My Take – Released in 2013, the first Conjuring film was a breath of fresh air for the horror genre. Following the success of Insidious, director James Wan brought back the classic haunted house tale, and the film’s use of extreme moments of tension combined with likeable and relatable characters led to massive success. Not only did the film spawn a sequel, it also set the stage for Annabelle (2014), a disappointing spin-off film that focused on a possessed doll who only got to show her true side properly in the excellent sequel Annabelle: Creation (2017). Considering this spin-off is its fifth entry, The Conjuring franchise is as of now pretty much the only franchise that’s reached anything like the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, and with this Corin Hardy directed film all set to conquer the box office this weekend, it’s pretty much the highest grossing horror franchise of all time.
Here, marking her standalone entry in the series, the character of the nun, who was easily one of the more frightening aspects of The Conjuring 2, we are taken back years before the other films, to truly understand why this is the darkest chapter of the series. And while the film is does provide a good amount of fun scares and is bolstered by a solid cast and a haunting Gothic atmosphere, it doesn’t manage to live up to expectations. Don’t get me wrong, while it is a very classic horror story, it just lacks the elegance we’ve come to expect from these films, especially considering how this one is riding on a ridiculously stereotypical story. In the sense, the film is more closer to the standard set by the Insidious films, whose latest too had little beneath the surface.
Set in 1952, the story follows Father Burke (Demián Bichir), who is sent by the Vatican to Carța Monastery in Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun, Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope), and to determine if the land where the incident happened is still holy. Tasked with assisting Burke is Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a young novice who has not taken her vows yet but is devout in her faith, but is assigned to the task due to her apparent knowledge of the area. Despite the fact upon meeting Irene, she reveals she’s never been to Romania.
Upon arrival the two meet up with Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the young French-Canadian expatriate who had discovered the body, who escorts them to monastery. Upon arriving, it’s clear that something is clearly wrong as the grounds appear to be cursed by some dark presence. Sister Victoria’s body is found in a different position from how Frenchie left her in the ice room. Together they must unravel the mystery of the abbey, and learn about the demon Valak (Bonnie Aaron) and the horrors that lay within the walls.
Written by Annabelle screenwriter Gary Dauberman and James Wan, this Gothic horror epic from the depths of The Omen and The Exorcist, with hints of other horror gems, washed with medieval overtones, successfully creates a dark setting for the characters to immerse themselves in and it’s a total, screaming blast. From the initial scenes of the film, audiences are inundated with the horrific imagery setting them up for what is ahead for them. Every step of the way, the plot allows for scare and fright. After a slow start, the film immediately ramps up the scares, and the couple nights that the characters spend in the abbey are relentless. It’s scare after scare, and while it can get a little tedious, it manages to provide some variety in location and creepiness. Yes, it probably isn’t the scariest film you’ve ever seen, but yes, there are plenty of scares here though and one of the film’s greatest assets is its ability to build scares upon scares.
Aside from the several jump scares, the mood of the film is dark and foreboding. In the ancient abbey, there are many shadowy corners and long hallways that you can’t see into, and that ultimately ups the heartbeat. It works for the most part, as the film has plenty of drawn out scenes that cut the music and build suspense to the point where you’re just left waiting with bated breath for something to jump out and scare the life out of you. You always know that something is going to happen, you just don’t know when, or where it might come from. One scene in the cemetery particularly stands out for its willingness to surprise the audience with one twist after another.
There are a few great surprises here and it’s exciting to see how the filmmakers continuously work to raise the stakes to keep the audience engaged. For this film, director Corin Hardy was a superb choice to direct as the filmmaker first hit the radars following the release of The Hallow (2015), which set in modern Ireland, featured a suburban couple moving into a small rural community teeming with ancient terrors and horrifying secrets. Cut off from the rationality of modern life, everything goes out the window, and even the most fact-minded individuals might find themselves pondering the possibilities of supernatural intrusions.
Here, director Hardy uses the setting to full effect and who could blame him? Filming in Romania is a stroke of genius as the dark woodland and creepy abbey become their own demonic forces. It’s a testament to director Hardy that the film’s suspense doesn’t lessen even when a joke makes its way into a scary sequence. French horror cinematographer Maxime Alexandre is well-versed in the visual language of the Conjuring films, the slow pans that mimic human vision, looking away then back to reveal some demon lurking in the shadows. The camera chases and circles elusive creatures, catching glimpses but never quite finding anything before some hellish doom looms out of the dark.
There’s something deeply unsettling about Carța Monastery, a dark, sprawling heap of cobblestones, statues, and tombs where the candles are always fitfully flickering, but no one’s ever home. The place’s geography is never fully established, which adds to the disorientation as Farther Burke, Irene, and Frenchie run around chasing/fleeing from various demonic apparitions. The titular antagonist herself aka the demon Valak, as established in previous Conjuring films is also quite scary. She’s a constant presence, whether she’s flitting by in the background or baring her splintery teeth in full, feral terror. She especially loves to appear directly behind people or at the opposite ends of long, shadow hallways. That the film’s laborious exposition dumps and backstory explanations don’t detract from these scares is a testament to the fundamental effectiveness of the nun as a film monster.
The most surprising factor here is the use of humor. Frenchie, their village jack-of-all-trades provides most of the chuckles. Look out for him wrenching an abnormally large cross from the ground only for it to appear by his side in a pub a moment later. If you’re new to The Conjuring franchise, you can go into this one blind and still have a complete, self-contained experience and it’ll likely inspire you to delve into the rest of The Conjuring universe with both feet. Those well-versed in The Conjuring’s core mythologies will appreciate how it expands the established universe. Yes, the film poses some questions that remain unanswered, but connecting the threads is an absolute joy for dedicated genre fans.
However, what detracts us from the film’s frights is the use of the flimsy plot and its connection to the preexisting Conjuring films. The connection is tenuous and the filmmakers try at every turn to entwine this one into the canon but somehow this feels standalone. Another factor is the use of characters here. In previous films, you cared about the people, especially whether they lived or died, and felt sympathy when they suffered. Here, the backgrounds of Burke and Irene are introduced through the dialogue between the duo, making it hard to care when they get terrorized. The only character with any sort of personality or charm is Frenchie, who is introduced as a flirtatious local who would rather be anywhere other than the convent, yet sticks around to help out. While Valak was a formidable foe to Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in The Conjuring 2, here you are left with an insatiable thirst to know more about her/it. While this film manages to answer some of your questions, but for each one answered, two more sprout up in its place.
Nevertheless, the performances are quite solid, with Taissa Farmiga lead the charge, who uses her gorgeous looks and large Disney princess eyes to perfect use. Demian Bichir too is particularly well-cast as a knowing priest who has seen the ugliness of supernatural forces and is haunted by the repercussions from an exorcism he conducted years earlier. Jonas Bloquet is surprisingly endearing and charming, and his much-needed laughs add levity to the dreary, at-times-laughable script. He actually lands his jokes perfectly, a true feat in a relatively serious film. All the actress portraying the nuns, Charlotte Hope, Sandra Teles, Ingrid Bisu, Manuela Ciucur, and Ani Sava are equally effective.
Bonnie Aaron’s contribution to the film’s success can’t be overstated; she returned to reprise the role of Valak she made iconic in The Conjuring 2, and a replacement actress simply couldn’t have towed the line. Her unique facial features drenched in demonic greasepaint are what makes Valak immediately arresting and terrifying. She doesn’t have to speak a word or wield a weapon in order to convey extreme dread. Whether The Conjuring franchise continues for years or decades, Valak is a character who’s here to stay, occupying the highest echelons of horror heavyweights. On the whole, ‘The Nun’ is a satisfying horror film which despite being inconsistent and less effective than its predecessors, manages to be a fun, thanks to its phenomenal setting and frightful antagonist.
Directed – Corin Hardy
Rated – R
Run Time – 96 minutes