Corin Hardy’s The Nun is a spinoff from James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 (2016) and tells the origin story of Valak (Bonnie Aarons), an evil presence of superhuman strength that is hell-bent on ceaselessly increasing its powers. In spite of being the fifth film in The Conjuring franchise, The Nun is surprisingly low on chills, even of the jump-scare variety that the series is known for.
The setting is 1950s Romania. The Vatican sends an investigator of miracles, Father Burke (Demian Bichir), and novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate a nun’s suicide at an isolated convent. Local resident Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) joins the duo on their investigation and serves as the comic relief.
Producer and co-writer James Wan and Corin Hardy make painstaking efforts to tie the plot to the previous films, but the underdeveloped story means that The Nun doesn’t always make sense. For a horror franchise built on the terror of the unknown, there’s a lot of back story and unnecessary explaining of the motivations of characters, which diffuse the tension needed for the horror to function. Cliches and stereotypes abound, cribbed from a host of genre classics, notably The Exorcist (1973). The drama is needlessly heightened, such as in the scene in which Father Burke talks of the horrors he has witnessed as a young investigator all the while banging his glass of whisky on the table.
The makers themselves don’t appear to be taking the horror too seriously. Frenchie’s dialogue is of the self-aware variety found in the Marvel comic book adaptations. Frenchie’s scenes with Irene, which would not be out of a place in a romantic comedy, are The Nun’s saving grace, the only moments when the film feels alive and not made in a blockbuster laboratory.
The atmospherics are the one true successful feature in the film. The intricately designed sets and perfectly chosen locations create a suitably menacing tone, where evil lurks in every corner. Unfortunately, the rest of it isn’t as interesting, not even the three leads, or more importantly for a horror film, the antagonist.
Like most successful franchise films, The Nun sets up a sequel. Judging by the most recent outing, it might be time to lay this horror series to rest.