The latest spinoff from the popular “Conjuring” films is the weakest in the series. “The Nun” is like one creepy sequence played on a tiresome loop.
The third exorcism tale I’ve reviewed this year, “The Nun” is the least challenging of the bunch. And even though it has the biggest exorcist-themed budget of the three, cracks in the production appear, exposing the naked desire to ensure wide appeal in hopes of adding bucks to the $1 billion franchise. If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned scare, take in “The Devil’s Doorway” instead.
Set in the 1950s, “The Nun” starts well, but quickly becomes unsophisticated and even a little boring. In a secluded convent located in rural Romania, a young nun is entrusted with a special key. But before she can put the key to good use, she commits suicide. When the Vatican gets wind of this traumatic event, they call in miracle investigator Father Burke (Demián Bichir). Although Burke is tough and even intimating, we aren’t given anything to properly introduce his skills.
Lack of context throughout the narrative is frustrating. Only later do we learn about Burke’s past, and those scenes are not very impactful. He carries with him a sample case of sorts that should house some unique demon fighting gear. More on that later.
The Vatican puts him together with nun-in-training Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga). We meet her as she describes to a classroom of young children the pitfalls of taking the Bible too literally. Clearly, Sister Irene is a progressive sort. In the blink of an eye, Burke and Irene appear in Romania on the doorstep of Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the young farmer, who, during one of his food deliveries to the convent, discovered the deceased nun still clutching the key.
The investigation naturally leads the three to the convent, a castle built in the Middle Ages. It’s a fantastic place that has seen better times, having sustained significant damage during bombing in WWII. They are rudely greeted by a Mother Superior (Lynnette Gaza), who is completely shrouded in black. Something is definitely wrong in this place.
“The Nun” is based on a screenplay by Gary Dauberman, the writer who so capably delivered Stephen King with 2017’s fantastic “It.” And there are hints of more ambition here and there throughout, but, unfortunately, the story leans too heavily on a recurring motif—the ghostly appearance of the demonic title character. The first few times this creature appears, the effect is frightening, but quickly the shock value wears out its welcome. And surprisingly, there’s little left to frighten viewers.
Director Corin Hardy (“The Hallow”) constructs a convincing Hammer Horror-like production, the surroundings of which are well-built by designer Jennifer Spence. But the self-important narrative lacks the tongue-in-cheek campy quality that helps makes a story like this mesh together in an entertaining way. And, instead of attempting to make the characters smart and knowledgeable of some defense to the unspeakable evil all around them, they merely battle the demon with brute strength and clumsy pratfalls. The best defense against the nun, just might be an old shotgun. It’s all very awkward.
Burke’s boxy sample case, that we think might be filled with a blessed assortment of weaponry, never really factors in. Instead, Burke and his makeshift demon fighting force flail around with little intention. Sure, he conveniently reads some old books found in a coffin, but it’s not structured effectively. There’s little tension as the film reaches its action-packed conclusion. Burke, Irene, and Frenchie are making things up as they go along, literally winging it. And the events get so random that it’s pointless to try to make sense out of them.
Unforgivable are the murky, at times, indistinguishable visuals captured digitally on the famed Arri Alexa by excellent cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (see “Haute Tension”). The film looks like it was shot through a cup of pea soup, as though we are watching a poorly lit 3D feature without the glasses. I leaned forward and strained to make out key details. Worse still is the confused focus of the compositions, that are mostly framed in order to accentuate the value of the typical assortment of jump scares.
One would think with the solid history of “The Conjuring” series, in which Ed and Lorraine Warren cleverly investigate the paranormal using retro tech and careful study, the producers would borrow from that nerdy ingenuity and produce a creepy film that would further shape the franchise. Instead, “The Nun” is like an explanatory flashback inside one of “The Conjuring” installments. It’s safe to say that after this one the Warrens will be desperately needed to perform a series exorcism.