‘The Nun’ succeeds at scaring, but shoddy logic and mediocre film making will leave you wanting a lot more.
The five films in the Conjuring franchise fall on a very easily definable scale. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 sit at the top, each incredibly successful horror movies with outstanding performances from the two leads and the work of the great James Wan making every moment seem like perfectly made horror. At the other end is the first Annabelle movie, the kind of horror movie that makes you sit back and yawn instead of screaming, in part because of messy performances and barely coherent horror sequences. Somewhere squarely in the middle of these is The Nun, the fifth movie in the franchise that manages to leave essentially no impact save for being scary.
The Nun follows Father Anthony Burke and Sister Irene as they journey to the Abbey of St. Carta in Romania. There, they are appointed by the Vatican to discover what led to the suicide of one of the nuns at the Abbey, a body discovered by a French-Canadian man known only as “Frenchie” who eventually helps the holy duo. Why are Burke and (especially) Irene appointed to this case? Unknown. Why does the Vatican care about this so much? Unknown. What are the rules of the demonic entity that apparently has overrun this random Romanian neighborhood? Also unknown. The logic of the movie seems to be, at its core, “let’s send these people into an abbey and scare the hell out of them.” And that was the extent of the writing process.
Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga star as Father Burke and Sister Irene, both doing as much as they can with the paper-thin characters they are assigned. Bichir’s character arc is based around the guilt of an exorcism gone wrong a few years prior that still (literally) haunts him, while Farmiga is seemingly here to remind you both of her own work in American Horror Story and of her sister Vera Farmiga’s role in the other movies in The Conjuring. Going in I expected some relationship between Taissa’s Irene and Vera Lorraine Warren to develop, but it isn’t a spoiler to say there is no relationship, making their sisterly resemblance and their existence in the same franchise only a misdirect.
What The Nun most has going for it is that it does succeed at pulling off a number of the scares it is looking for. The scariest set pieces are some of the most realistic as well, including a moment of someone nearly suffocating to death as well as the suicide to start off the film. Much of the horror elements seem ripped from Spanish and Mexican horror films like The Devil’s Backbone or The Orphanage, the period setting and constant religious imagery continuing to build the fear.
Thankfully, Bichir and Farmiga can pull off this kind of terror well, even though the characters become dumber and dumber to the scares around them as the movie progresses. Logically, them and Frenchie would learn to stick together when things begin to get scarier. Instead, they continue to split up for no reason other than logical jumps. But the scary nuns work almost every time one is seen, in part because of how the movie is made.
A dark color pallet that uses only blacks, oranges and blues make for a perfect hiding spot for the shapes of nuns in shadows, making the movie feel like a scarier version of Where’s Waldo down every dark corridor. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography captures the Catholic horror very well, particularly when contrasting the white garb of Sister Irene against the darker backgrounds. But the strange framing and a number of flourishes that Alexandre and director Corin Hardy attempt to cause the visuals to fall flat, especially in the many expository dialogue scenes. The film seems to intentionally distance itself from the style of The Conjuring films, but those are so well made and iconic to the horror landscape that it is hard not to compare the two. Everything about The Nun seems designed to make you simultaneously remember The Conjuring movies in their superiority while also trying their best to stand apart. It succeeds at neither.
The Nun is enjoyable enough to scare you as you watch it, which is about all you need. But thinking about it for more than five minutes—especially compared to The Conjuring—will likely leave you feeling less horrified and more just plain disappointed.
The Nun is in theaters Friday.