4 out of 10
Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene
Demián Bichir as Father Burke
Jonas Bloquet as Maurice “Frenchie” Theriault
Charlotte Hope as Sister Victoria
Ingrid Bisu as Sister Oana
Bonnie Aarons as Valak / The Nun
Jonny Coyne as Gregoro
Mark Steger as The Duke
Sandra Teles as Sister Ruth
Manuela Ciucur as Sister Christian
Ani Sava as Sister Jessica
Jared Morgan as Marquis
August Maturo as Daniel
Claudio Charles Schneider as Demon
Michael Smiley as Bishop Pasquale
Directed by Corin Hardy
The Nun Review:
Horror should, at some level, be a reflection of what we are actually afraid of. A film about witches made for someone who cannot believe in them is not going to be scary no matter how many times they jump out of a corner. Momentarily startling, sure, but nothing which will stick with you. The Nun, the latest in Warner Bros. successful line of sequels and sidequels to its Conjuring films, suggests what we’re really afraid of are priests and church officials, but only when their eyes glow in the dark and they throw things around with their mind. Or maybe it’s the eeriness of empty places far from civilization – in this case a chalet in Eastern Europe – in a classic haunted house story. Or maybe it’s about some demonic other trying to invade our home with no idea how to stop it. Actually, The Nun doesn’t seem to have any idea what we’re afraid of, so it’s going to try a little bit of everything and hope something works.
Set about twenty years prior to The Conjuring films, The Nun sets out to show us the hidden history of the demon Valak which was vanquished in The Conjuring 2. Exactly what that history is will be glossed over in a quick flashback because this story is more about some other people who were also terrorized by this same evil Nun we saw before. In this case a semi-abandoned cloister where an almost forgotten order of Nun’s prays day and night in order to keep an ancient evil trapped there. When all communication with the cloister ceases the Vatican sends one of its best demon busters, Father Burke (Bichir) and a young novitiate (Farmiga) to investigate.
The Nun is predictable modern horror, offering the exact opposite of what horror needs to survive – safe chills. It leans heavily onto the skill of the craftspeople behind the lens to create evocative mood which works up until it doesn’t. The choice of focus produces characters and performances with little to draw the viewer in, primarily because the nature of a possession narrative is to remove agency. If your idea of horror is to watch characters watching something scary rather than actually experiencing it then it’s going to be a slog. Production Designer Jennifer Spence (Annabelle: Creation) has made a meal of the haunted Chalet and its cold and isolating arches and corridors. And it’s a good thing, too – director Corin Hardy spends a looonnngg time looking at them while his sound track blares ‘ooohhs’ and ‘aaahhs’ like the keeper of an aging Halloween theme park trying his best. One expects him to jump out and at any moment and ask ‘isn’t this scary?’
But it’s all the screenplay by Gary Dauberman (It) has given him to work with. Literally. There are perhaps three or four scenes in the entire film with more than three people in them (and frequently less) giving everyone time to stand silently and let us all revel in the isolation of the room they are in. But emptiness doesn’t generate fear, it generates apathy. Perhaps if the characters were more compelling or at least more involved in what was happening to them there would be some feeling shared terror which could be passed on, but mostly they just look at things with their mouths open. There is some notion that Farmiga’s sister, who has not yet taken her vows, is waiting for some sign a life as a nun is what she’s after but that can at best be guessed at as she rarely talks about herself or seems to have much of an inner life … and she is the most well-rounded of the group.
Mainly because they don’t need to. Almost everyone involved has worked on either this or producer James Wan’s Insidious series and has a good idea what it audience seems to want, and maybe that’s the one important thing to take from The Nun. In the 40s it was shadows and things unseen and in the 50s the effects of radiation and our increasingly complicated world. By the 80s it was all about the slasher and the depths of physical harm within our safe spaces – how gory and Goldbergian the ‘kills’ could be. In the 2010s it’s images of empty room and occasionally a bump on the soundtrack. What we seemed to be most scared of now is being bothered by anything.