In this world of Dark Universes, Marvel Universes and DC Universes (with only one of them being truly successful) exists a little horror film that provided the basis for another cinematic universe which has steadily maintained quality throughout. Landing in 2013 with a haunting bang was The Conjuring, James Wan’s remarkably old school horror. It was made for peanuts but went on to earn over $300 million worldwide, its success largely down to priding character over horror spectacle (but never short of inventive scares) and formulating some truly effective new horror monsters. Despite a stuttering start with formulaic prequel Annabelle, this new saga has grown in strength, primarily because it prides creating individualistic standalones with singular directorial voices over franchise connections. Don’t get me wrong those connections are there, but they are secondary to the focus on fear and mood. After the measured and terrifying Annabelle: Creation the lens now lands on the story behind Wan’s horrific creation, ostensibly known as The Nun.
The start is not exactly auspicious mind you, feeling more akin to a ‘Previously on The Conjuring’ montage than an actual opening. Fortunately we rewind back to 1952, and a Romanian monastery, as a secluded sect of nuns find themselves under threat from the titular creature. After one kills herself thanks to said encounter, the Vatican decides to send Father Burke (Demian Bichir), pretty much the Catholic equivalent to Van Helsing, and a young novitiate yet to take her vows, to investigate. The film doesn’t really waste time getting the two of them together and sending them into the heart of evil, in some ways in detriment to the film. We never truly get a sense of the young nun-in-waiting, we see that she is slightly rebellious to the convent ways and there are hints of a grander connection to the evil that will beseech them, but she feels frustratingly one note. It is no fault of actress Tessa Farmiga (daughter of The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga), who is convincingly wide eyed and sells the desperate fear well, but the character is a little underfed from writer Gary Dauberman (IT). Bichir favours better and is a gruff pleasure as the priest who’s seen it all but is in no way prepared for what lies ahead. There is an emotional undercurrent in the guilt he feels over an ill-performed exorcism, yet like Farmiga’s heroine it feels surface level despite the anguished pain Bichir portrays.
Horror is usually pretty story-lite, favouring a loose plot in which to hang as many set pieces as possible on. The Conjuring films have largely avoided such pitfalls by centring things on characters you really care for, allowing the scares to feel stronger. The Nun suffers in that the character work is never as strong, and certainly doesn’t help that the loose story is even looser here. The duo arrive at the monastery, shit hits the fan and they slowly learn how they can combat the Nun. That’s about it. The stakes never feel heavy enough, with even the ensuing connective tissue with the larger universe coming across as fun albeit minor.
Despite all this The Nun is still largely successful. After his brutal inventive debut horror The Hallow, Corin Hardy directs here with increased confidence. There is perhaps a rather liberal use of the fog machine, adding atmosphere to the effective production design, filled with contorted crosses, cavernous halls and candlelit hallways. Filming in a real secluded Romanian castle gives the film a tangibility, surrounded as it is by acres of billowing forest. Hardy realises nothing is more scary than nature, full of shadows and noise, with the woods alongside the nearby town gracing the film with a folkloric vibe. Hansel and Gretel would probably be right at home within these foreboding trees.
The setting certainly plays a major part in some of the films biggest scares. A horror can be anything it wants but without some meaty jumps it means nothing. The Nun is somewhere in the middle of the scale. Hardy lacks the supreme tension building and general sense of unease that Wan so adeptly delivers in his horrors, relying perhaps a little more on the soundtrack reliant jump scares. I tend to find creepiness more effective in horror, and there is only a soupcon of that at play here. Far too often Hardy goes for the mysterious figure standing in the background of a shot for his creeps, and whilst effective it lessens its impact when overused. Beyond a buried alive moment that claustrophobes will squirm at, there isn’t a real standout set-piece to linger in the head. Although out of all The Conjuring films The Nun does play around a lot with its monster, Hardy having free rein to creatively unleash zombies, ghosts and demons at us with gleeful abandon. It has the air of a funhouse ride, particularly in its final stretch which follows the pattern laid down by the other instalments in being loud, chaotic and CGI charged.
The funhouse vibe is felt very much in its use of tone. Unlike the others The Nun isn’t afraid to populate the film with a tension-relieving joke or comedic exasperation at the madness of it all. Most of this is delivered via ‘Frenchie’, a local French-Canadian (although based on the accent he could be from anywhere) lad who accompanies the two of them. Jonas Bloquet is a hoot as the barely comprehending quipster, hiding his fear behind a veil of humour, yet in the films final moments proving himself capable of true heroism. Even with two central characters, and the ensuing back story baggage, Frenchie is the one who actually generates the most heart from his slightly more believable reaction to events. The real star though is Bonnie Aarons as the terrifying Nun. Ethereal yet primal in her movements, with eyes that burn through into your nightmares. The film around her may not be quite so consistently horrifying, but she will certainly haunt the peripheral of your thoughts, and send the Catholics in the audience running for the vestry.
Verdict: Story weaknesses and thin characters stop The Nun from reaching the heights of its predecessors, but a brooding atmosphere, effective set design and solid scares make for a fun Friday night scare-fest.