There’s a point in The Nun‘s climactic third act showdown with the unholyiest of nuns, Valak (Bonnie Aarons), that has Taissa Farmiga’s newly vowed Sister Irene embrace her ability to have visions, a power move that looks like slow motion telekinesis. It’s a moment that shifts the pivotal battle between good and evil, nun verse nun, while revealing its universal similarities to another substantially powerful cinematic universe. Instead of iron clad entrepreneurs and disturbingly handsome Nordic gods, it’s the wicked conjuring of Loraine and Ed Warren, two real life super heroes who confront malevolent forces that wage war against the family.
Both universes are tethered to its own grand, operatic vision, one that as of late has felt more concerned with how many pieces there are to the puzzle than the quality of the board. With The Nun, the latest piece in James Wan’s puzzle – one that began with The Conjuring five years ago – the franchise has become less exciting and more, well, insidious, exorcising its own demons in order to amass its own Avengers-like greatest hits of cleverly crafted villains.
When a nun at the Carta Monastery in Romania hangs herself, the Vatican sends Sister Irene and Father Burke (Demian Bichir), a holy hitman of sorts, to investigate what Burke exclaims is a terrible sin. Enlisting the help of delivery boy and lone witness Maurice, though the ladies call him “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), Burke and Irene arrive at the sequestered, fog-draped abbey. Once inside the confined walls littered with enough crosses to raise Christopher Lee from beyond the grave, our three amigos must confront an evil so rancorous that it may shatter more than their faith.
Corin Hardy’s film ties itself together to its universe by opening with the ingenious introduction to the our titular nun from The Conjuring 2, ending with Lili Taylor’s Carolyn Perron from the first witnessing a shocking revelation that sets everything in motion. The nun’s presence beckons ominous tones that are established through Abel Korzeniowski’s (Penny Dreadful) score, using one too many low hums to call forth the evil within the abbey, which lurches forward on cracked bones through a Gothic laden atmosphere.
It’s a particular mood that feels ripped from early Hammer films, and when it drips from the screen you can’t help but want to reach out and dip your fingers in its rich textures. Thick fog, wooden crosses, dirt covered grave stones and overgrown vegetation that might contain its own evil wraps itself around the film, creating the illusion of life.
Unfortunately, the lushness of its world tucked away in the Romanian hillside quickly evaporates and in its place is the cavity of the monastery, decayed with an over-saturation of convenient shadows. I say convenient because it’s what conceals just about every horror The Nun has to offer, from grim hands to praying nuns, which it advertises with Korzeniowski’s score like an air-raid horn. Each scare relies heavily on shadows and a jolting burst of sound that by the halfway mark, nothing is very shocking.
Underneath its veiled attempts at frights is an absurdity that feels marked in the skin by the likes of Italian maestro Michele Soavi, who brought religion to its knees with The Church; a gloriously bonkers genre piece that never thought twice about showing a goat-headed behemoth fornicating on top of a table. Here, holy water soaked crosses ignite skin, shotguns are cocked with the gusto of an old western, and even Jesus Christ’s blood is turned into an item of divine warfare. All the makings (and sacrilegious markings) are there for a Gothic, gun-slinging showdown with sin.
Except that isn’t what this film (let alone the universe) is about. The Conjuring films may be bereft of The Nun‘s aesthetic charm, yet its characters are grounded in genuine, raw emotion that greatly elevates the horror element that lays waiting in a familiar corner. These are films that rely on that heart and horror to stir something within us, separating itself from the countless one-note entries in a genre that’s smarter and more capable than it’ll ever get credit for. The Nun, in between its sumptuously grim exteriors and observance of the ludicrous, never really takes its vows to the church of horror, too often straying from embracing anything memorable, feeling like a puzzle piece that just doesn’t quite fit.