Since exploding onto the horror scene with 2003’s Saw, director-producer James Wan’s career has seen highs (Insidious, Furious 7) and lows (Lights Out), but it is undeniable that he struck gold with 2013’s The Conjuring, which pulled in a remarkable $319 million on a $20 million budget. A slow burn that prioritized psychological horror and atmosphere over jump scares or CGI, the film was a breath of fresh air in a genre grown increasingly stale by predictability and digital effects.
Naturally, this resulted in the creation of a (sigh) “Conjuring Universe” that has –thus far– yielded a sequel (The Conjuring 2), a prequel (Annabelle), a prequel to the prequel (Annabelle: Creation), and, now, with The Nun, a prequel to the sequel. This time around, the story delves into the background of The Conjuring 2’s, Valak, a demon whose countenance is at least as terrifying as its penchant for wearing holy women’s clothing.
TWO NUNS WALK INTO A CORRIDOR…
Set in Romania in 1952, we begin with a pair of terrified nuns making their way through a corridor towards an ominous-looking door that is helpfully labelled in Latin with the words, “God Ends Here”. The sequence ends with the ignominious ends of the nuns, the younger of the two choosing to shed her earthly shackles via the mortal sin of suicide.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
The Vatican dispatches Father Burke (Demián Bichir, Alien: Covenant) to look into the strange happenings. He is joined in his mission by Irene, a novice nun (Taissa Farmiga, TV’s American Horror Story) with a history of visions. Along the course of their investigation, they cross paths with Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), a French-Canadian deliveryman who had the misfortune of discovering the young nun’s body hanging outside the convent.
CURIOSER AND CURIOSER..
When the convent’s evening vow of silence forces Burke and Irene to spend the night at the convent, they quickly discover that a nun committing suicide is the least of their worries. As the pair soon discovers, the convent sits above a sealed portal to the spirit world, where the demon Valak awaits its chance to unleash an era of darkness on mankind. With the gateway having been damaged by the Second World War a decade prior, it will take Father Burke’s faith, Sister Irene’s visions, and a bewildered Frenchie’s shotgun to defend the world from the evil of Valak.
Speaking of Valak…
VALAK IS WASTED
For all its flaws, The Nun succeeds at creating a creepy, gothic atmosphere in its opening acts. Unfortunately, handsome production design and a truly terrifying villain aren’t enough to distract from the thin plot. Despite a returning Bonnie Aarons (The Princess Diaries) as the titular creature being beyond reproach, the problems lie in the usage of said creature, as director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) simply isn’t able to sustain the mood necessary to keep the proceedings sufficiently terrifying.
While Hardy is right in wanting to maximize Aarons’ ability to exude an unerringly disturbing presence (A 15-second ad for the film featuring her was removed from YouTube after too many people complained about it being too scary), he makes the easy mistake of having her pop up one too many times throughout the film’s runtime.
Further diminishing Valak’s mystique is the screenplay’s refusal to define just what the entity’s abilities are, with the script delegating whatever powers seemingly at random, including – but not limited to – telekinesis, teleportation, super strength, telepathy, reanimation of the dead, illusion, possession of the living, and, in the case of the mother superior’s corpse, ventriloquism.
Oh, and Valak also seems to like listening to Stafford’s rendition of “You Belong To Me”, but that’s neither here nor there.
CURSE OF THE PREQUEL
Though it’s been said before, it does bear stating that the inherent problem with prequels is that you already know the main characters’ fates going in. This isn’t to say that an interesting story could have been told about Valak’s European adventures, but it does diffuse dramatic tension when you know that the demon is free to wreak havoc in North America a mere twenty years later.
Even without watching The Nun, one could infer from the trailer that either Father Burke isn’t very good at his job, or that nothing of consequence happens in this movie.
IT TAKES A TURN
Now, it would be bad enough if The Nun was just a weak entry in an ongoing franchise. After all, given the sheer variance in emotional triggers and cultural context from person to person, few genres are as notoriously difficult to nail down as horror.
Well, it would seem that either producer James Wan (Saw) or screenwriter Gary Dauberman (Annabelle) thought the same thing, because halfway through, The Nun ditches religion-based horror for a supernatural adventure. Of all the directions they could have gone, bridging the gap between The Conjuring and 1999’s The Mummy –replete with a wisecracking, suspender-wearing, shotgun-wielding hero to complete a time-based ritual– never crossed this writer’s mind.
The transition is jarring, to say the least, and this writer is still trying to process what the actual hell it was the filmmakers thought they were doing.
TRIALS OF THE FAITHFUL
As Burke, Bichir is a standard-issue man-with-a-past attempting to atone for his mistakes. In this case, it is his failure to prevent the death of a young boy he was sent to exorcise that haunts him spiritually and, later on, literally. Bloquet doesn’t leave much of an impression as the charming foreigner who takes a liking to Farmiga, who fares slightly better as Sister Irene, whose naiveté serves as the emotional anchor of the film.
Sadly, even the best actors in the world wouldn’t have been able to solve the quandary of how we went from nuns in a haunted convent to a convoluted special effects-laden finale. Simply put, The Nun pales in comparison to its predecessors for the mere fact that it pretty much ignores everything that made The Conjuring so successful in the first place, only succeeding in proving the old horror adage that less is most certainly more.
Perhaps producer Wan and his collaborators’s franchise money would be better spent on improving the screenplay for the inevitable The Conjuring 3?
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