Studio: New Line Cinema
Director: Corin Hardy
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Producer: Peter Safran, James Wan
Stars: Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons
An inexperienced young nun partners with a hardened priest to investigate an evil presence haunting a Romanian abbey.
Love, hate, or indifference for the end result aside, you’ve got to appreciate when a movie tells you what cards it will play before the whole hand is dealt. Following the first of two Ed and Lorraine Warren bookends, “The Nun” opens on a pair of eponymous sisters exploring catacombs beneath a Romanian abbey that may as well be a vampire’s crypt. Countless crosses crowd the corridor. Fog fills the floor. An imposing wooden door on rusty iron hinges bears a warning in Latin, “God ends here.” We haven’t even arrived at the unseen presence pulling one of the women into darkness while she claws at the camera, yet the movie has proudly broadcast precisely what styling lies in store.
Bared back to brass tacks, you could fill an ocean with the classic Universal and Hammer monster movie atmosphere pouring from “The Nun” like a waterfall. That’s excellent news for wanderers eager to tour abundant ambiance formed on a foundation of pitch perfect production design from Jennifer Spence. Attendees anticipating a substantial story behind the spook show’s creepy curtain on the other hand, may wish hotter fictional fire fueled the setup’s smoke.
After the second woman’s subsequent suicide, the Vatican does what the Vatican always does in such cinematic situations. They send in a priest with a haunted past, the only kind of clergyman who exists in fright films, to investigate. Father Burke gets partnered with Irene, a young postulant who has not yet taken her formal nun vows, but whose predictive visions landed her on some bishop’s radar to play idealistic innocent to Burke’s battle-weary veteran.
Burke and Irene’s first stop upon arriving in Dracula’s homeland takes them to Frenchie, a handsome rural farmer who discovered the dead nun. At least 50% of Frenchie’s dialogue involves either flirting with Irene in a manner that was probably less problematic in the 1952 setting, or coughing up weirdly timed one-liners. Frenchie’s side purpose of exchanging eyes with Irene gets abandoned early. His comic relief remains in play as a distraction for the duration however, bizarrely tuned to the tone of a Brendan Frasier “Mummy” movie when absolutely no one else ever exhibits a similarly cavalier spirit.
Together, the trio takes a trip to the abbey to investigate reports of an unspeakable evil. “The Conjuring” franchise fans already know that evil is named Valak. Good for them, because “The Nun” doesn’t desire getting into details to explain anything more about him, her, or it besides identifying Valak as a demon disguised in nun’s vestments for convenient incognito creeping around the convent.
Instead of an origin story for the titular terror, “The Nun” more or less presents a series of scares and scenes that don’t necessarily tie to a distinct narrative. Here’s an example of context being banished to the background. One sequence features Father Burke frightened by the ghost of Daniel, a boy who died years earlier during an exorcism gone wrong. The ghoul spits up a snake. The snake scares the priest. Father Burke stumbles backward into an open grave where he ends up supernaturally buried alive. A brief burp of mid-movie exposition later mentions the snake’s vague connection to Valak. But basically we’re looking at long lines of “pop goes the weasel” dominoes with no real relation to the demon. Daniel recurs often enough to become more of a character than Valak does, even though Daniel ultimately serves as a gag to waylay Father Burke whenever he needs to be somewhere other than alongside Irene.
Yet “The Nun” has so much fun with its frights, your escapist imagination may not immediately fall through empty spaces in its Swiss cheese slice of narrative. Even when the plot of Valak’s escalating antics isn’t accelerating, which can be as often as manufactured reasons to tear the main trio apart, director Corin Hardy applies a focused artistic eye and confident craftsman’s hand to keep the engine of eeriness revving constantly.
“The Nun” gorges on gorgeous gothic visuals. “The Nun” also overfeeds on typical tropes like a choir chanting on the soundtrack, slowly searching cavernous cellars exclusively by lantern light, and more shrieking ghosts than a jump scare abacus can count. Still, sincere performances from Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, along with supporting sisters who treat Valak as a truly sinister spirit, channel a strange sense of satanic darkness from suggestive imagery involving vicious visions, a smoky graveyard, and plenty of possessed nuns wearing bloody sacks over their heads.
To be sure, the script begs for more motivation behind every arc and infinitely more depth to the demon. However, with its on par attention to showmanship and clever full circle hook back to the first “The Conjuring” (review here), “The Nun” emerges as a textbook definition of a well-made mainstream horror movie whose entertainment value is respectably above average, if wispy. Think of it like “The Exorcist” reconfigured as a drive-in movie, and I mean that as a compliment. Mostly.
Review Score: 65