No doubt there will be high hopes for director Corin Hardy’s first schlep into The Conjuring universe following his striking debut, The Hallow, in 2015. When Hardy’s mooted Crow “remake” was shelved, he was soon after announced as the one to tackle The Nun: an origin/spin off on The Conjuring 2’s prioress possessed by the demon Valak. When the first Annabelle solo film proved a success, a standalone Nun movie had to be set, with Hardy an apt choice to helm considering The Hallow’s top notch mending of tension with cosmic forest monsters. Sadly though, The Nun flounders onto our screens like a hotchpotch ghost train of botched schlock/pop horror, peppered with defective scares and a shrill, dithering plot. Too many clichéd scenes featuring characters creeping down dark corridors slow the pace instead of upping the pulse rate. For the better part, The Nun lacks the consistently bodacious visual flair and creature design of Hardy’s little seen debut, bar some nifty beast freak-outs which do bolster set-pieces.
It’s 1952 and the Merrinesque Father Burke (Demian Bichir) returns to Rome after a six year sabbatical. At the Vatican, Burke’s superiors tell him about the suicide of a nun in the Romanian Abbey of St Carta. Burke then sets off with the younger, postulant/novice Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), to investigate the grizzly death. Upon arrival, Burke and Irene meet “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet): a local who found the dead nun. Frenchie informs Burke and Irene of the abbey’s history and its past inhabitants including the sinister sister/ demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons).
The Nun takes cues from The Exorcist (1 and III) with possessions, beheaded statues, spinning crucifixes and speed-walking attack vestals, along with admirable Hammer grooves; Romanian castles, cloaked, foreboding, reaper-like figures and a horse (in this instance) who will go no further. Hardy lifts riffs, motifs, set-up structures and visuals from the aforementioned, but these are more in the manner of a loving homage than cheap cine-swindle. The Nun looks the nuts, swish and opulent with professional surface polish. Its deficiencies are structural; script, execution and inability to frighten. Valak and co have unique enough histories that are not efficiently utilised to affect, inform or drive Gary Dauberman’s script.
Valak (in nun form) is, primarily, a striking and frightening figure: a malignant Mother Superior with a Christopher Lee (as Dracula) air, sullen face, Death-like habit and protruding Nosferatu cheek bones, previously utilised to petrifying perfection by James Wan in The Conjuring 2. Sadly Valak’s solo outing won’t rattle hardened horror fans, although more sensitive viewers may feel its jars. Despite excellent sound design, nifty deployment of crashing orchestral bolts within a score evoking Hammer composer James Bernard’s, the scares are just not as expertly fashioned to franchise fan requirements, and won’t land for those knowing when to expect them. Most of The Nun (film) components are (on paper) fitting, but Hardy fails to replicate the dread mustering that Wan mastered so winningly to fruition in The Conjuring 2.
The Nun’s inability to frighten is something of a cine-sin considering the countless hair raising scares in the franchise’s earlier films. There were even a fair sharp few in the lesser Annabelle entries. Hardy’s key strengths reside in his eye for design and stirring up a palette which recalls (via black and deep red) Hammer’s tinkering on gaudy goth theatrics, without crossing into the garish. His skill is also evident in the incredible, outlandish demon creature scenes that are few and far between here. Burke chasing shadows leading to gnarly, supernatural set-pieces featuring snakes gliding out of mouths and screaming bloody skulls, not just (initially) jump scares, are a delight. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography is also exquisite and Jennifer Spence’s production design, fitting for the material.
The protagonists are fortified with substance (Irene’s nightmares, Burke’s past traumas relating to his absence and Frenchie’s not so ulterior motives towards Irene), but these feel supplemental, secondary to The Nun attempts to pound pulses, over protagonists’ internal journeys, plot and character progression. This is partly understandable considering The Nun is, after all, a Hollywood horror project with a set criteria to thrill and frighten. And we’d rather be scared than watch characters enlightened by epiphanies, right? However, maybe that extra speck of depth could have surged the terror tenfold and turned The Nun into something outstanding. Sadly what we are left with is a glossy, by-the-numbers spin-off/ prequel that is sometimes entertaining, but for the better part tiresome.