Directed By: Corin Hardy
Release Date: September 7, 2018
Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Demian Bichir, Jonas Bloquet
A good horror movie has the capacity to leave you smiling, perhaps even nervously, when the credits begin to roll and you find yourself walking back to your car at night in a conveniently empty parking lot moments later. It might make you jump, make you laugh, or make your skin crawl while watching it. It may even make sleep difficult after seeing it as your mind entertains the idea that some unspeakable horror could be lurking under your bed or in your closet or in some shadowy corner of your home just waiting for you to doze off. Ultimately, though, whether it be the next day or a few days later, those immediate thoughts and feelings fade away, and that good horror movie becomes a memory you may or may not revisit one day down the line.
A great horror movie, however, stays with you forever, the experience of seeing it for the first time lingering like a specter that wanders the halls of your mind weeks, months, and years later. Even though it may not make you tremble every time you think about it, it still has the capacity to haunt you in the best of ways, ready to remind you of the visceral feelings of terror or unease it evoked, whether it be through its imagery, its themes, its score, and so on. It's a perfect assembly of so many elements that turns a good horror movie into a great one, and it's not an easy – or common – feat for something to become a classic.
Even a movie with fantastic potential can slip from great to good to terrible or – even worse, arguably – just plain average based on one thing not working to the detriment of everything else, sending you out of the theater with the thought of "That's it?" rather than leaving you with notions of things that might call the dark home. Poor casting can keep us from investing in and caring about characters no matter how well they're written. An overwrought score can distract us from a scene we should be immersed in. An over-reliance on cheap jump scares can quickly drain and exhaust an audience rather than suck them into a world of tension and leave them there to stew as the circumstances of a given plot go from bad to worse.
The Nun is, unfortunately, one such film undone by such a single major failure, and I hate to have to say that considering how much I personally have been looking forward to this film, which serves as a prequel to The Conjuring films meant to explore the past of the scene-stealing demon Valak from The Conjuring 2.
Set in 1952, two decades before we first meet Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring, The Nun sees the Vatican sending a priest, Father Burke (Demián Bichir), and a novitiate, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), to investigate the apparent suicide of a nun at a monastery in a remote region of Romania, aided in their journey by a French-Canadian named Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), also known as "Frenchie," the young man who discovered the nun's body. Once there, it doesn't take long for the group to realize something is off, as the nuns aren't exactly forthcoming or welcoming, and all manner of weird things begin to happen that lead to a simple truth: The demon Valak has surfaced from an open rift underneath the monastery, searching for someone to possess that can help spread its evil into the world at large.
Directed by Corin Hardy, the new film does have a lot in it that I enjoyed that I think deserves to be acknowledged. The gothic, fog-drenched set design and location work is beautiful and appropriately creepy, constantly inviting our eyes to wander every corner of every frame in search of something unusual or out of place. The cast is fine, the overall final product itself bringing them down rather than the other way around. And there are some genuinely neat set pieces throughout the film, from a sequence involving a character buried alive to one that sees another barging into a room full of motionless spirits.
So what doesn't work? It's simply that the film is missing the spark that makes it feel essential, like this is a story we needed to be shown. This is a film full of possessions and demons and ghosts, of exploration into spirituality and the supernatural, but it all feels superficial in the end because none of it brings anything new to the table, particularly for The Conjuring franchise as a whole, which has already dabbled in many of these same concepts. It ties back around to the two films it was born from, sure, but it does nothing to really expand the overall mythology in a way that truly justifies its existence, those elements of monsters and deeper themes glossed over rather than seized and cracked open to expose their full potential, the film too frequently trading in its narrative prospects for what feels like the hundredth jump scare that simply involves someone or something being present one second and gone the next.
At one point, the film even flirts with the type of backstory that truly could've set this film apart, gifting us with an all-too-brief flashback to the Dark Ages meant to show us how the rift through which Valak can enter the world came into being. It's legitimately fascinating, a hint of where the Conjuring franchise could go if it wasn't so beholden to a more modern timeline where it can maintain its ties to the Warrens. Ideally, that's where a sequel/prequel could go, for as much as The Nun touts itself as being an exploration into Valak's origins, it really feels like more of a surface scratch than a true deep dive, but it shouldn't take a follow-up to give us the story that truly capitalizes on the allure of the premise.
And ultimately that's what is most frustrating about The Nun. It's serviceable, certainly, and my audience was into it, but I don’t really have much to say about it, which is disappointing, as it could've –and should've – been so much more. From its game cast to its shadowy, effectively creepy setting to the thematic elements at play, there's so much The Nun has going for it that’s only shortchanged by an overabundance of cheap thrills and a narrative that plays it far too safe and familiar to the point of redundancy. For a movie that should've been fearless, it lacks the real bite that could've made it good or – even better – great, and while it's nowhere near being a mess deserving a label of bad, it resides in that realm that's sadly more regrettable: The painfully average.
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