Catholics have the best scary movie paraphernalia: crucifixes, rosary beads, holy water, relics, scapulars. Priests walk into films strapped like Rambo. The power of Christ compels them to kick ass and chew guilt, and they’re all outta guilt. As an audience hungry to see our faith weaponized, horrors like The Nun help bolster our courage and stuff the cold, real-world alarm of Spotlight into the dungeon of our subconscious. Nevermind what happens behind the locked doors of the rectory, this Romanian abbey rests on a gateway to hell!
If you still manage to have an appetite for religious terror in the wake of endless Exorcist wannabes and the true crimes of the Church, The Nun will satisfy using a standard set of jump-scare tactics. Desperately connecting dots and jumping through hoops to hitch itself to the ever-expanding Conjuring universe, this latest link in the chain is not interested in genre reinvention. Misdirection and startling violin strings never fail to goose your calm even if the sensation is immediately followed by an eye roll.
Do your best to ignore the flashforwards that bookend the film. The less you think about how The Nun ties into The Conjuring 2, the better. All you need to concern yourself with are a pair of nuns fleeing down dark castle corridors in 1952, Romania. As one doomed sister is lurched into a shadowy void by a demon sporting a nasty habit silhouette, Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope) traps herself within her room. As doors rumble and walls rattle, the dark presence draws near. Sister Victoria clutches onto an ornamental key, lowers a noose around her neck, and flings herself from her bedroom window. Snap.
Following the discovery of the corpse, the apparent product of suicide, The Vatican dispatches Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate. They are charged with answering two questions: 1) What would cause a bride of Christ to commit the most heinous of sins? 2) Does the abbey still reside on holy land? The second question has an easy answer: hell no.
The first question is a little more complicated, even more so for those already familiar with the demonic creature that plagued Mr. & Mrs. Warren. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman manages to have a little fun by digging into Roman conspiracies and medieval flashbacks to round out the backstory. Templar knights and satanic noblemen are decent seasonings for any horror of this ilk. And there may even be an honest-to-goodness holy hand grenade secreted behind a hidden passageway. The revelations Dauberman manifests only work as far as the actors take them.
Demián Bichir is having a grand old time. Why not? He’s living and breathing inside his own personal Hammer film. Just as Peter Cushing embraced his costumes and mastered the absurdity of his dialogue, Bichir embodies his warrior of God. Father Burke is a Vatican sanctioned Van Helsing, answering the call of evil, and matching its furor with his own. The film is never more fun than when Bichir is staring down the malevolence with a fist clenched around a serpent. Bow down, you faithless slime.
As the nun-in-waiting, Taissa Farmiga is mostly here to stand-in for our screams. Her face is trapped in perpetual concern. What’s behind this door? Where does this hall lead? Who’s under that veil? Was that cross upside down before?
Having spent a lifetime questioning her purpose inside the church, The Nun entity is an undeniable affirmation for Sister Irene. There is no doubt when faced with the devil. I’ve never understood why that realization doesn’t immediately transform our religious heroes into supreme evil ass-kickers. How can you scream when you’re on the side of God, and He’s backing you up with iconic artillery?
Of course, none of us purchased a ticket to hang with the good guys. We’re here for the Prince of Darkness. The Nun is front and center on the poster. She’s the star, and Bonnie Aarons as the fiend superior cuts a horrific figure. Her shadowy profile in combination with her impossibly yellow contact lenses and deep socket skull makeup raises The Nun above your average creature feature celebrity. Aarons never belongs in a room. Her very presence is an affront to the natural order, and she has total control of the audience when within the frame. The problem arises when her paranormal phantom simply results in a loud-bang score attack.
The Nun certainly never reaches the quality of scare that James Wan achieved with The Conjuring 1 & 2. Director Corin Hardy gets a few good jabs in, and he’s blessed with the mighty mean shape of Bonnie Aarons, but this spin-off ultimately sits next to the Annabelles. They get the job done. The Nun delivers a solid, safe “Boo!” for a sleepover. If you’re in the spirit, the film provides.