Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense famously said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”. There is nun of that here.
One wonders if James Wan had such a successful connected horror universe in mind when he first started work on his fantastic The Conjuring (2013). Today, Wan’s connected supernatural universe centring on the true life paranormal investigations of famed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren are going to be the highest grossing R-rated series to date. The first two Conjuring films are by far two of the most suspenseful supernatural thrillers of modern times – sophisticated, dramatic, and full of heart while also being genuinely frightening. The first spin-off to The Conjuring films involved a possessed doll in Annabelle (2014) followed by an origin story of said doll in Annabelle: Creation (2017). The latter being the only spin-off worth ones time. During The Conjuring 2, Wan introduced the demonic character of ‘The Nun/Valak the Defiler’ which resonated resoundingly well with audiences. Being the world of exaggerated Easter-eggs and connected cinema universes we live in, an origin for such a popular character was enviable.
The plot seems straight forward. A young nun at an isolated and derelict abbey in Romania commits the ultimate sin and takes her own life. Sent from the Vatican, a priest with a haunted past and a novitiate who suffers from medium-esque dreams (for some reason) are sent to investigate (also an unknown reason). Risking not only their lives but their very souls, they confront a malevolent force in the form of the same demonic nun that first terrorized the Warrens in The Conjuring 2. While the plot seems to be easy and straight forward, as good horrors often are. This film shows all of its cards sinfully early and doesn’t particularly create the Holy Horror one had hoped.
The film has the near perfect combination of premise and promise. The creepy demonic nun, rich religious lore, spooky castle and an origin tale for a crowd favourite character. All of this combined with truly excellent marketing campaign… should have worked. Unfortunately, the scariest part of this film is how much money it will make riding off the backs of its predecessors. Frankly put it’s a bore. The film starts interesting with the first sequence of the haunted suicide full of ghostly promise. That is soon lost – as our characters confront the evil spirit and are plagued by illusion after illusion of demonic visions. The leading characters are so unlikeable one oddly enough finds themselves rooting for the Nun. In an effort to create a comic relief character the filmmakers force-feed the audience with “Frenchie”; whose dialogue and attempts to alleviate “horror” with humour come off as extremely jarring. The issue herein lies with the story, as there is no substantial point nor stakes and the characters all lack motivation. The demonic Nun/Valak in The Conjuring 2 wanted to take the soul of a little girl and possess her body, here she seems to just want to slowly walk along hallways and randomly hiss at people. A cat with incontinence would be scarier. What made The Conjuring films so ghoulishly great was that at the center there is immense heart surrounding a family coming together and a couple’s believe in each other. This film however has zero of that heart and not enough scares to make us forget that. A strength of the other films are the compelling charisma of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens – they are sorely missed here.
The subtlety and finesse in crafting tension and horror without revealing much is the key to creating a truly fine thriller; the gradual build-up of horror through the unknown; having the audience know that something is out there and not revealing it immediately etc. The Nun does the exact opposite of all of this. As the film progresses both the writing and the audience reaction devolve into a somewhat pantomime comedy. The feeling of farcical buffoonery is utterly cemented when the third act features a holy McGuffin that is so grand and unfittingly inane in its use to defeat the ancient evil that a collective eye roll could be felt from the audience. Indiana Jones himself would call the divine relic used stupid.
The filmmakers seem to have forgotten Alfred Hitchcock’s lesson in film terror. One can only hope The Conjuring series can get back on track and this doesn’t become a ‘habit’.
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