The current horror renaissance Hollywood is experiencing, propped up by filmmakers looking to prove that the genre can extend beyond its worn tropes and delve into the more highbrow realms of other dramas, was largely ushered in by James Wan’s 2013 old-fashioned ghost story, “The Conjuring.” Lazy franchises such as “Paranormal Activity” and “Saw” began to lose traction to arthouse hits like “Get Out,” “It” and this past year’s “Hereditary,” which despite having a F audience rating, is generating academy buzz.
“The Nun” is the fifth entry in the saga, branching off from an antagonist featured in 2016’s “The Conjuring 2.” As the third spin-off for the series the film extends its timeline further into the past than any other film in the series, all of which are period pieces.
The story centers around a monastery in 1952 Romania with an unholy secret. After a nun commits the unspeakable sin of taking her own life, nun-in-training Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and Vatican-sent investigator Father Burke (Damián Bichir) travel to the dilapidated abbey to investigate.
There are two areas in which this continuation of the conjuring mythology succeeds in carrying forward the franchise’s dignified legacy: the design and the acting.
Even more so than any of its predecessors, “The Nun” demonstrates director Corin Hardy’s attention for detail and prioritization of visual splendor. With a budget of only $22 million, Hardy, along with his team of production designers and set artists, have successfully created a rich, atmospheric film heavy on both well-executed computer-generated images and practical effects.
Farmiga is the real-life sister of Vera Farmiga, or Lorraine Warren in the main conjuring films. In her role, Farmiga is both poised and assured with what’s she’s given to do on screen. Her delivery is believable, and she pulls off what could have been an unforgivingly kooky look in her floor length nun-to-be getup. Elsewhere, Bichir’s role is also well-acted, particularly in a pivotal scene involving the church official finding himself buried alive yards under the earth.
Unfortunately, as strong as those aspects are in the movie, not much else about it measures up, especially when compared to the stronger films in the franchise.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the main series of films is that they take great care and pride in weaving character-driven dramas apart from the simple scary story aspects of standard horror fare, but that component is missing in “The Nun.” The problem is that the actors are hardly given anything to do in the story, or anything to be at all besides pawns in the contrived storyline. There is no character development, nuance or payoff to anything that the characters do or anything that happens to them.
There is one exception to the series of acting compliments paid above. The character of Frenchie, a farm boy who discovers the nun’s body at the onset of the movie, accompanies our lead characters for the rest of the film. He is unhelpful, senseless and annoying. Frenchie contributes to a grating series of attempts at comic relief and not much else. His character alone provides for the movie’s most cringe-worthy moments and ruins more than a few situations that should have been creepy. Well-meaning and harmless as he may be, his existence in the movie highlights an already tonally dissonant script and takes plot-driving opportunities from other actors.
It’s not all poor Frenchie’s fault, though.
No, this movie does what no truly ambitious horror flick dares to: it relies on jump scares, and not even good ones.
While atmospheric, the story has few truly inventive moments of terror in its arsenal. With a few exceptions, most of the “scary” moments scattered about the picture are predictable and trite, wasting the spooky atmospherics due to a lack of patience and originality. Even The Nun itself, the form taken by the demon Valak, becomes less scary throughout the film instead of the other way around.
While “The Nun” attempts to contribute to the franchise’s mythos in a few key ways, it trades in a chance to foster an intriguing origin story in favor of a sloppy, tacked-on “tie-in” involving the most uninteresting character of the bunch.
In all honesty, “The Nun” is frustrating not because it’s a truly terrible film–but because it wastes so much of what it has going for it. The film’s shortcomings are all the more frustrating because they’re supplemented by a lot of genuinely promising work visually. High fan anticipation, groundwork for a fascinating story laid out in previous films and genuinely stunning visuals all add up to a head start for what should have been another victorious entry in the series. But it isn’t, and now audiences might not be so trusting of future entries.
With the largest box office opening for the franchise yet (past $50 million compared to the original film’s $41 million, which was a feat in itself), it’s doubtful executives at Warner Brothers are sweating at the mixed reviews for this feature. However, boasting a C CinemaScore and a 49 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it will be interesting to see if fans will be more wary to flood theaters for the next installment.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 28 percent
Traveler Score: C