With all due respect to the considerable talents of horror wunderkind James Wan, the heart and soul of the Conjuring franchise has never been its scares or monsters, but the relationship between its married paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga). Beyond the sheer novelty of their chosen profession—they dress, speak, and act like leftovers from an anodyne 50s sitcom, not crusaders against the forces of darkness—they are fascinating because the films take them seriously as a couple that loves and cherishes each other, an angle surprisingly uncommon in the ultra-cynical world of modern horror. Many of the most meaningful moments in both films are their silent looks of love in the rare snatches of quiet and stillness between cases. We may be in the middle of a horror renaissance, but how many filmmakers would brave the scene in the second film where the story grinds to a halt for an actual musical number where Ed serenades Lorraine with an acoustic cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love”? Both the infanticidal witch spirit in The Conjuring (2013) and the ghostly elderly shut-in from The Conjuring 2 (2016) read like allusions to their anxieties as a married couple and prospective parents; it’s telling that both films also see them saving the marriages and relationships of the nuclear family units they help. Wan’s films treat his leads like real human beings we could imagine existing beyond the peripheries of their runtimes, not walking plot devices.
The failure, then, of the franchise’s most recent spin-off, Corin Hardy’s The Nun, isn’t that the film is predictable or at best only moderately startling (although these two things don’t help), it’s that it lacks the emotional depth of their parent features. Exploring the backstory of Valak, the demon nun from the second film, Hardy presents us with two underwhelming leads tormented by anxieties that are never fully interrogated. Set in 1952, the film follows gruff exorcist Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and precognitive novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) as they’re despatched by the Vatican to investigate the suspected suicide of a nun at Cârța Monastery in Romania. Burke is haunted by the memory of an early assignment where a young boy under his care who may have been mentally ill instead of possessed died following a particularly violent exorcism, and Irene struggles with doubts about her imminent consecration as a nun as her more liberal attitudes towards religious propriety clashes with the stern, dour ones of her initiated sisters. (With her love of sporting pastel casual wear in the convent and disdain for biblical literalism, she’s practically a proto-flower child!)
Here we have two brilliant set-ups for plumbing the themes of faith, doubt, and belief: Burke with his suspicion that exorcism and the Church itself might be a bunch of harmful bunk, Irene that organized religion hinders instead of helps those seeking God. But as soon as they reach Cârța, all ambiguity gets thrown out the window as they’re shoved through a gauntlet of jump scares and CGI demons. Great movies about paranormal investigators struggling with doubts like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Daniel Stamm’s underrated The Last Exorcism (2010) slowly ramp up tension by presenting plausible explanations for supernatural phenomenon, making both the characters and audience guess whether or not the hauntings are all a bunch of hooey. But The Nun throws all nuance out the window almost immediately. Within a few minutes of arriving at the monastery, Burke is led to a graveyard and buried alive in a coffin by vengeful spirits.
From there the whole film devolves into a morass of purplish pulp as the story expands to involve World War Two bombing raids, Dark Age crusaders, and esoteric demonology. That’s all fine and good—the explanation for how Valak, an ancient demon from time immemorial, gets summoned to the modern era is worthy of a Hellboy comic—but the material’s self-seriousness neuters any cheesy fun to be had. Unless you have a Romero, Argento, or Fulci behind the camera, weighty dramatic gravitas can’t co-exist alongside campy shock-horror. Worse yet, the horror itself is largely disappointing. Though Hardy has clearly studied Wan’s playbook of composing scares via misdirection within the frame’s mise-en-scène, the scares are all telegraphed and obvious. There’s no moment that truly takes us by surprise like the “hide and clap” closet in the first Conjuring or the Crooked Man contortionist in the second. There’s some brief business with graveyard bells left over from the days of the Black Death that’s inspired, but it’s used up too quickly and briefly after being introduced for it to be truly effective.
The Nun could have stepped away from the rest of the franchise by fully embracing the melodramatic camp suggested by the idea of a convent full of evil nuns, much like Powell & Pressburger did with Black Narcissus (1947) and Ken Russell with The Devils (1971). But it can’t escape the pull of the original film’s emotional grimness. Though Bichir and Farmiga give it their all, they just can’t get the subpar script off the ground, especially in the third act when a shotgun-totting local villager named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) joins the game as comedic relief. The film isn’t as bad as the first Conjuring spinoff, John R. Leonetti’s dreadful Annabelle (2014), but it simply isn’t good enough to distinguish itself from the cavalcade of excellent horror thrillers being released this year.