The Conjuring films have always leaned into religious mythology and iconography, so the idea that James Wan and Co would introduce a demon Nun was hardly surprising.
What is surprising is that the filmmakers of The Nun, the latest film in the franchise, would decide to turn their backs on the tried and true formula that made all the other films such a success. Where The Conjuring, Annabelle, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle: Creation all center on relatively ordinary people coming into contact with extraordinary evil, The Nun moves the action away from suburbia and into the Romanian countryside.
The Nun takes place in 1952 and is the earliest film in The Conjuring universe, chronologically speaking. It centers on Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga)and Father Burke (Demián Bichir), who are sent by the Vatican to investigate the mysterious suicide of a young nun at the Carta Monastery in Romania.
It’s clear from the outset that something evil lurks in the abbey, and it isn’t long before Irene and Burke are being stalked by the habit-wearing demon we know as Valak.
On their first night in the abbey, Burke is lured into a cemetery by the spirit of a boy he failed to save from demonic possession years earlier and buried alive. Irene’s encounter is less horrifying, but would still be enough to send any normal person running for the (literal) hills.
But we still have 90 minutes of movie left, so the pair stays put.
What follows is the story of two people who apparently have no sense of self-preservation – and barely two brain cells to rub together.
It’s frustrating because there is a decent story here, if the filmmakers had only taken more time to explore their characters’ motivations. Sadly, Irene and Burke do things simply because the script requires them to.
At one point, Burke is trying to break through a door to get to Irene when a floating bell starts ringing behind him. It is clearly trying to lure him away from Irene, and yet the priest turns around and blindly follows it. Even a dog wouldn’t fall for that. And it’s hard to invest in a plot that has so little respect for its audience’s intelligence.
Aside from the flimsy characterizations that make it hard to care about our two protagonists, The Nun also fails as an origin story or world-building exercise. The stakes are unclear (a great evil is about to be unleashed on the world, but we are not given any indication of what that means – and we kind of already know from The Conjuring 2 that Valak eventually makes it to England).
It’s also not clear what Valak is capable of. We’re told the demon dresses in a habit to trick the nuns, but we’re not told why it would need to do that. The demon doesn’t seem too concerned about revealing itself when the script requires a jumpscare, and all the characters know a demon lives at the abbey. At this point, the jig is up. Lose the habit, Valak, you’re not fooling anyone.
“Lose the habit, Valak, you’re not fooling anyone.”
Which leads me to this film’s greatest sin – it is just not scary. Where the script under-explains the protagonists’ motivations, it over-explains everything else. We repeatedly see the Nun’s face in all its sharp-toothed glory. We learn the entire (centuries-long) history of the abbey and all its inhabitants. Honestly, less is more when it comes to horror. Not to mention, a 90-minute exposition dump does not make for entertaining viewing.
But there are some good things nestled in here. Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s little sister) is convincing as the wide-eyed and innocent Sister Irene, and Demian Bichir is always a joy to watch – even though he isn’t given much to do here. But the real star of the show is the charming Jonas Bloquet as Frenchie. Bloquet brings a likable warmth to his handsome rogue character, and it’s hard not to root for him when he’s on screen.
There is also a neat little tie in scene just before the closing credits that spells out how the events of this film tie in with the first Conjuring movie.
The Nun is worth watching if you’re a super-fan of the franchise. But if this is your first foray into the Wan-iverse, or you’re trying to get a friend hooked, I’d give this one a miss and go for one of the Conjuring or Annabelle films.