While Warner Bros. continues to try – and continues to fail (and flail) – to match Disney/Marvel’s cinematic (superhero) universe at the box office or in popular culture, it’s succeeded where just about everyone least expected: A shared supernatural universe created by James Wan, the filmmaker behind not one, not two, but three popular franchises (Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring). (A fourth, Aquaman, will get its long delayed debut at multiplexes in December.) Wan’s second entry in the series, The Conjuring 2 introduced “The Nun (Bonnie Aarons),” an ancient demon, supernatural star, and expert-level cosplayer that haunted the protagonists as a pasty-faced, rotted teeth, glowing-eyed nun (because by their nature, nuns are inherently frightening creatures). Within seconds of her terrifying appearance, audiences wanted to know more, see more, and hear about the Nun. As always, though, we should be careful what we wished for. Too much explanation, too little story, and the result looks something like the 1950s-set The Nun, a slow burn, slow build horror entry that’s all burn and all build, with little in the way of a satisfying emotional payoff.
As always, spoilers!!!!
Taking more than a few pages from the novel-turned-screenplay for The Exorcist, The Nun centers on Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a Vatican-approved paranormal investigator and part-time exorcist with a haunted past and a near fearless desire to confront supernatural evil wherever it can be found. An urgent message from a French-Canadian living in the wilds of Romania to the Vatican sends Father Burke and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate who hasn’t yet taken her final vows, to St. Carta, an ancient – as in medieval ancient – cloister and convent where a nun committed suicide (a soul-damning sin in the eyes of the Church). Sister Irene might seem like an unlikely companion for the more experience Father Burke, but she’s got that vision thing that suggests she’s in contact, consciously or unconsciously, with the divine (i.e., God, as usual, working in his mysterious ways).
When they get to the cloister with the help of the French-Canadian, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), they find it almost completely abandoned. The Mother Superior shows little interest in showing them around or helping them with their investigation, but with the cloister closed from sundown to sun-up, they have little choice but to spend the night in the nearby convent. Showing more brains than brawn, Frenchie takes his leave and returns to the nearby village, promising to return in a day or two (or sooner). After a harrowing dark night of the soul for Father Burke – with only Sister Irene’s timely intervention saving him from almost certain death – circumstances (and the screenplay) dictate that Father Burke will be left behind in the library, researching the demonic nun’s origin story, while Sister Irene commiserates with the nuns who’ve remained at the cloister, praying in perpetuity (taking turns) to keep evil – or rather “Evil” with a capital “E” – from escaping into the outside world.
Credited to Gary Dauberman (It, Annabelle: Creation), the screenplay (Wan shares story credit with Dauberman) leans heavily on slowly unfolding or developing scenes of the central characters, collectively or more often than not, individually, wandering through the labyrinthine, underlit interiors of the cloister or the cross-littered grounds surrounding the isolated cloister, with fake-outs, misdirection, and eventually, jump scares provided by other characters (good nuns, ghost nuns, zombie nuns) every few minutes to keep moviegoers from drifting off or even worse, falling asleep while they wait for the next scare. Dauberman’s script laboriously explains the demon nun’s origin (hello, every season of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer), but plays fast-and-loose with the demonic nun’s powers or what she (or rather it) wants beyond cosplaying as the world’s most unhygienic nun and frightening true believers who manage to wander onto the cloister’s grounds. She’s basically a prankster, unfortunately one without a sense of humor. At several points, The Nun almost veers into Evil Dead territory, but director Corin Hardy (The Hallows) always pulls back at the edge.
Hardy gets huge assists from Belgian cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (next year’s Shazam, Annabelle: Creation), a near master of light and shadow (especially shadow), production designer Jennifer Spence, turning the cloister and the surrounding grounds into a vast, nearly impenetrable fortress-like creation that’s practically a major character in the film, and composer Abel Korzeniowski’s (Nocturnal Animals, Penny Dreadful) suitably menacing, occasionally piercing score. Bichir and Farmiga – The Conjuring stalwart Vera’s younger sister, but apparently no relation within the movie-verse – give credible, committed roles. They take their roles seriously and deliver their lines, minus howlers courtesy of Dauberman’s ill-conceived, poorly executed attempts at comedy relief, with the kind of professional gravity and seriousness that helps moviegoers buy into The Nun’s uneven efforts at delivering throwback gothic horror.