The Nun (2018)

SEPTEMBER 6, 2018

GENRE: RELIGIOUS, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

The problem with most horror franchises is that they need to keep finding ways to resurrect their central boogeyman, but The Conjuring "universe" has found an easy way around that by introducing the Warrens' room of haunted trinkets, and mixing their real life cases with some made-up ones so they can continue introducing things briefly in the mainline Conjuring movies that otherwise focus on other cases. It worked out so well for Annabelle that it got its own prequel (which outgrossed the original, so there's probably a third one coming), so they're trying again with The Nun, based on one of the terrors from Conjuring 2, and if box office estimates are correct it will once again be a lucrative endeavor - but I'm not sure audiences will ultimately be as satisfied this time around.

Unlike Annabelle, which was at least derived from an actual (or "actual") haunted Raggedy Ann doll, there's no basis in reality for this particular story - there's a demon named Valac in the old lore, but it has no relation to "Valak" from Conjuring 2, nor did it ever take the form of a nun, far as I know. And neither of the Nun's primary characters - a priest who is sent to perform investigations on behalf of the church, and a nun-in-training who occasionally has visions - are based on real people either. The only exception is kind of a spoiler, so I can't get into that, except to say that a lot of what we see here is also made up but seems to be leading into the plot for the potential sequel, one that would presumably tie it into the main Conjuring films more than the Annabelle films (or this one) ever managed.

So long story short, they had to make up pretty much everything here, but despite that license they didn't quite flesh it out as much as they did for the Annabelles (and when I say "they" it's not a stretch - it's the same screenwriter and producers as those films). Bizarrely, the movie kind of tells us a lot in its opening sequence: there's an old, isolated abbey in Romania that has some sort of evil force contained within it, and the nuns are the gatekeepers, preventing it from getting out to the rest of the world. But it's one of those movies where we know more than the protagonist, so we spend a lot of time watching Taissa Farmiga's character wander around, getting spooked when the internal Horror Movie Scare Clock demands it, until learning that... there's an evil force in the abbey and the nuns are keeping it from getting out. It's almost like the opening scene wasn't supposed to be there, because it's treated as a big reveal later.

Even weirder (spoilers here, skip to next paragraph if you wish) the same opening has a nun kill herself to prevent the demon from having a vessel (i.e. a living body), which any intelligent viewer can understand to mean that there were no other nuns there, because otherwise it'd be a pretty pointless action to take. So when Farmiga and the priest (Demian Bichir as Father Burke, possibly a reference to Exorcist's Burke Dennings?) arrive and talk to a few nuns, my initial thought was "Oh, the nuns are all ghosts", because - again - the nun killed herself to keep the demon from having a vessel. If there were other nuns there she'd just be dooming one of them to get possessed instead, which isn't very Christian of her. But an hour goes by before they tell us that there are no other nuns there, they are indeed ghosts, and that the one who killed herself was the last one. It's clunky, to say the least.

I was also baffled by the fact that they seem to be hiding Farmiga's character's name, which is Irene - I think they only say it once near the beginning of the film and never again. Given her sister's prominence in this franchise, and their similar looks, I thought it was an intentional bit of subterfuge that she was mostly ever addressed as "Sister", and we'd find out she was actually a young Lorraine Warren or at least her sister (heh) or something, but no. So it's just a weird casting choice; nothing against Taissa but of all the actresses in the world, and given the series' habit (heh, again!) of twists, why would they distract us by putting her in the role? The film's setting (1952) is even perfect for this kind of thing, as Taissa is within a year of the age Lorraine would have been then, but while there is a twist at the end (a pretty good one, too) it has nothing to do with her. Alas, this means that her rather thinly drawn character - which I was assuming throughout most of the runtime was intentional to try to hide her identity from us - was just that, and in a movie with only three characters of note, that kind of hurts.

None of those three characters are the titular Nun, by the way. She doesn't really appear all that much, oddly enough; Burke tells of a botched exorcism that haunts him and so he is menaced by a demonic version of the little boy he failed to save, and I swear he appears just as much as the Nun. "The Nuns" would be a more accurate title, since instead of just the main one (played by Bonnie Aarons again) we just get a lot of anonymous ghost nuns without faces, as anyone who has seen the trailer can tell you (where Taissa turns to see one following her, only to be attacked by a second one from her side). This allows for some of the film's most memorable sequences, like when a character has to make his way through them and they all turn in unison and sort of flock in one direction, but at the end of the film I felt I didn't really get more time with the "character" than I did in Conjuring 2. I mean, with Annabelle they couldn't really do all that much with the doll but managed to give it a full presence in the movies - they don't quite manage the same thing here, which is weird when it can, you know, move.

But that sequence, and a few others, make the movie watchable and even fairly fun for the most part, despite the story's shortcomings. There's a fun "buried alive" bit, an attack on a guy in a cemetery (with a fantastic punchline involving a cross), the scenes in the catacombs are all solid, and - even though it's mostly just exposition - the flashback scene explaining how the evil came to be sealed/released in the abbey is pretty great, to the point where I almost wish it was the main part of the story in the first place (but hey, now they can do a prequel to this prequel to the sequel!). And those are just the highlights; I should stress that the movie didn't have any BAD scenes, and I was never really bored - it just didn't quite all gel together in a fully satisfying way. The plot isn't exactly complicated, and as I said we kind of learn some of the information twice, so there isn't a lot of momentum or build-up to the narrative, so your mileage will vary and exclusively depends on how well the scares work for you. It's fun, but not as involving as I may have hoped.

That said, I am happy to report there aren't as many jump scares as there were in Annabelle: Creation. Director Corin Hardy (whose movie The Hallow is highly recommended) shares producer James Wan's love of fog machines and gives the film a sort of Hammer vibe (a scene where one of our protagonists visits a pub seems straight out of Plague of the Zombies or one of those), so there's more of an emphasis on atmosphere than giving the audience a reason to look up from their phones. It's still got plenty of those jolt moments (the best, alas, is the one from the trailer, which by now didn't even cause a titter in my audience), but Hardy doesn't seemingly feel the need to overload the film with them like it's some sort of competition. For the most part, they happen when they should, and while some work better than others, none of them are "fake", which is always a plus in my book.

They have already announced a movie about Crooked Man (also from C2), plus sequels to all existing branches, so this franchise isn't going away any time soon. But I hope the spinoff folks start realizing that a big part of what made us like the Conjurings was the characters and their loving bond, which made us want to go on those journeys with them. We can debate the accountability of the *actual* Warrens all day long, but the slightly fictionalized versions played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are winners, and the three spinoffs have yet to come up with anyone as personable as them. And that's not a slight against any of the actors who have played the heroes in these other movies - it's just a side effect of centering them around the demon baddies. But when they're all prequels, we kind of know that the heroes in these films will have short-lived victories (if any), so I wish they spent more time giving us a reason to want to see them succeed, or at least survive. Otherwise they're just kind of like slasher movies without victims, giving us iconic villains who ultimately don't really do anything memorable.

What say you?

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