Film Review – The Nun
It appears the “Conjuring Cinematic Universe” continues to grow.
The Nun (2018) is the latest spin off of the horror franchise that started with The Conjuring (2013). After the success of that film and its sequel, we got Annabelle (2014) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), which charted the spooky doll that was featured in the original entry. This latest installment digs into the backstory of the “Demon Nun,” a ghost creature that made an appearance in The Conjuring 2 (2016). I guess if you play a monster or evil spirit in one of these pictures, there’s a good chance the filmmakers will “conjure” up your own story. Sorry for the lame joke, but it was too obvious not to go there.
This time, we are taken back into the 1950s. If we are to list these films in chronological order, this one takes place first in the timeline. We’re brought all the way to Romania, where a priest named Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and a nun in training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera) are ordered by the Vatican to investigate a mysterious case. A fellow Sister has committed suicide in an isolated abbey in one of the Romanian towns, and it’s up to Father Burke and Sister Irene to investigate why. Of course, given that we know what kind of movie this is, we can safely assume there’s a malevolent cause behind it. Their investigation connects them with a French-Canadian traveler named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who first reported the suicide.
In terms of production value, The Nun has a lot going for it. Jennifer Spence’s production design and the art direction by Adrian Curelea and Vraciu Eduard Daniel cast the look and feel with old school, traditional decorations. The abbey is depicted as an ancient castle on the verge of collapse, with corridors littered with old furniture, dimly lit candles, and spider webs. Take a wrong turn and you might find yourself entering a hidden passageway or maybe even a dungeon. Nearby is a graveyard where all the tombstones and crosses are coming up from the ground in disjointed angles, and the surrounding trees have branches that twist and turn with wicked effect. Everywhere you go, whether inside or outside, a looming fog seems to follow. The sets, costumes, and makeup call to mind classic horror movies – something you would see from the Universal Monster series, or maybe even Hammer and Giallo films. The biggest accomplishment the film has is in its aesthetics.
But despite how good looking this world is; it’s betrayed by the writing and direction. Corin Hardy’s direction and Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography captures the visuals in ugly, muddled darkness. There is barely any color outside of deep blacks and dirty grays. The picture is so dark that it nearly masks how good the production values were. The camera never allows us to sit back and take in the environments, it’s too eager to move on to the next jump scare. Gary Dauberman’s screenplay never digs deeper into these characters. Father Burke and Sister Irene are painted with very light brushstrokes. We’re told that Father Burke has a haunted past, but the writing never elaborates on the tragedy for us to understand who he is. Sister Irene is even more of a blank slate. We learn that she has not yet taken her vows to become an official nun, but we don’t get a good grasp as to why. Nor do we understand why the Vatican would send a trainee into a case that is obviously a bigger responsibility than she’s prepared for. I mean, if Father Burke – an experienced priest who’s had run ins with evil spirits before – can’t handle this situation well, what’s to make us believe that Sister Irene would?
I hate to sound like a broken record, but jump scares do very little to produce true terror. “The Nun” (played by Bonnie Aarons) looks creepy. With decaying skin and glowing yellow eyes, The Nun has a great look as a horror movie monster. It’s too bad that she’s relegated to nothing more than a jump scare mechanic. Very little effort is made in creating tension or suspense. Instead, the filmmakers opt for the easy way out: making a scene completely quiet and then shocking us with a scary looking image accompanied by a loud, booming sound. Sure, this will startle some, but the execution has no lasting effect. None of the scare tactics sends chills down our spine or makes us look over our shoulders when we walk out of the theater.
It also doesn’t help that these characters are dumb beyond all imagination. Father Burke and Sister Irene look like well-educated people that would inhabit common sense, but as soon as they arrive at the abbey they become clichés. If they hear a strange noise, they actually move toward the sound to find out what it is. When signs point to danger, they approach it instead of running away. At one point, they come across some old books that clearly look demonic, and yet they decide to scoop them up in hopes of gathering more clues. Frenchie appears to be the only level headed character we have, who hilariously points out how unwise their actions are.
The Nun wastes the efforts put into the set design and art direction with a lackluster story and substandard scare scenes. We’ve seen this kind of thing over and over again, to the point where we can guess what’s going to pop out from the side of the screen before it happens. How good is a horror movie if you already know what’s coming? The horror genre has a ton of great pictures, I’m afraid this one is going to get buried beneath the pack.