REVIEW – ‘The Nun’

One of the cardinal sins of cinema is for a film to be boring. This rings especially true within the horror genre; a genre designed to thrill, terrify, and, above all things, get your heart racing. Rather ironically, The Nun commits this very cinematic sin by delivering a bland, by-the-numbers piece of cinema which offers very little in the way of genuine scares or engaging entertainment. Overloaded with predictable jump-scares you can see coming a mile away and a thin plot that’s stretched to its limits, The Nun is another disappointing spin-off from the ever-expanding The Conjuring universe.

We first met the titular character in The Conjuring 2, where the demonic nun known as Valak (Bonnie Aarons, under heavy make-up) terrified beleaguered psychic medium Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) from beyond the grave. This prequel takes us back to 1952 and the Abbey of St. Carta, a war-damaged gothic monastery in Romania. After a bleak prologue featuring the mysterious suicide of a young nun at the Abbey, the Vatican sends Father Anthony Burke (an underused Demián Bichir), a priest with a history of examining paranormal occurrences, to investigate and determine if the holy grounds have been consecrated.

Father Burke is also instructed to bring along Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a young novitiate yet to take her final vows, due to her familiarity with the Romanian area. Now, here is one of the film’s glaring plot holes. When Father Burke first meets bright-eyed young Irene, he’s alarmed to discover she’s never actually been to Romania and is completely bewildered as to why the Vatican believes she has intimate knowledge of the region. This is literally never touched upon again. For whatever reason, she agrees to the Vatican’s wishes to join Father Burke’s investigation, and off they set for the Abbey.

Upon their arrival, they locate a burly French-Canadian villager nicknamed Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who was the unfortunate soul to discover the hanging corpse of the nun who suicided. His character’s purpose is ultimately two-fold; provide the exhausting exposition surrounding the Abbey’s sinister history, while also gifting the film the touch of levity and light it so desperately needs. Frenchie and Irene also have some minor flirtatious chemistry, which, given her devotion to God, naturally goes absolutely nowhere. Why it’s even placed in the script is beyond me.

From here, you can almost entirely guess what’s to occur next. As the trio foolishly venture inside the spooky Abbey, they uncover a dark mystery hiding within the monastery’s walls. The sisters who call the Abbey home refuse to reveal anything, bound by their deep faith and vow of sunset silence. Apparitions begin to appear. Candlelights flicker in draught-free rooms. Objects move by themselves. Voices are heard. And Valak, in all her creepy glory, is ever-present. Can Father Burke and Sister Irene uncover the secret to vanquishing the demon for good?

While the setup certainly sounds incredibly promising, the end result is a rather tedious undertaking. When you find yourself looking at your watch twice in a film that barely runs 90 minutes, you know you’re not exactly having a great time. That’s not to say the film doesn’t make a desperate attempt to thrill you. It zips from set piece to set piece in rapid succession but barely any moments land any real impact, particularly those meant to strike fear into an audience member’s heart.

Every useless jump scare (how many times can Valak grab someone by the throat and then just vanish?!) is so painfully expected, losing any chance to really shock the viewer. The old horror movie cliché of a character slowly surveying a room before something suddenly jumps out has been done to death, yet it’s used here several nauseating times. The greatest of horror films subvert your expectations by delivering shocks when you least expect them. The Nun never once follows this path, instead merely blindly trudging behind every other lame horror film that has preceded it. Sure, it creates something that’s still entirely watchable, but it’s ultimately disappointingly forgettable.

The narrative is overflowing with endless exposition, constantly flailing about in its attempt to provide some semblance of a backstory to the ungodly Valak. But, much like Solo: A Star Wars Story, is this really a character we needed to know the intimate background of? Isn’t it far more terrifying to just know her as the infernal antithesis of what we expect of a servant of God? Then again, this is the franchise that felt it necessary to explain the origins of a creepy doll, so it’s hardly surprising to see another obvious and unnecessary cash grab from this universe. For all its efforts, you ultimately walk away with little more understanding of this character than you did before, making the film that much more pointless.

Farmiga and Bichir try their utmost to elevate their bland and uninspired characters above the poor writing, but they’re both completely wasted in this film. Farmiga has proven herself worthy of great horror characters, but she’s barely required to do much more than look terrified, run, and scream. Even so, Sister Irene is an endearing and empathetic character, thanks to the infectious charm of Farmiga. Father Burke seems to be crafted as a feeble homage to Father Merrin from The Exorcist but without the character development that made that role so iconic. Even someone as talented as Bichir can’t do much here. Unsurprisingly, Paquet all but steals the film, which, in a cast of dull characters, isn’t a particularly hard task.

When production was announced, Farmiga’s casting suggested an obvious connection between Sister Irene and Lorraine Warren, given that role is played by Taissa’s older sister, Vera. It provided a brilliant piece of meta-casting that achingly begged to be played with. And yet, it frustratingly never eventuates. The two sisters are the spitting image of each other. Several times during The Nun, Irene talks, walks, and acts just like Lorraine. She even has her own psychic visions, perfectly connecting the two characters. The idea that Lorraine was once Irene or, at the very least, somehow related to the novitiate is a great plot twist that goes agonisingly begging and I cannot possibly understand why.

The film’s saving grace is its sublime production design, with Jennifer Spence crafting some truly spectacular sets and environments for the characters to play in. The Abbey’s gorgeously crafted gothic hallways and chambers create a deeply unsettling atmosphere that’s sadly let down by the rest of the production. A great film could use these locations to great effect, especially given this franchise has been beset by its insistence on setting its action within the confines of a small suburban home. The Nun is given more room to create something creatively grander, but, sadly, director Corin Hardy fails to take full advantage of this opportunity.

For all its spooky ambience, The Nun is ultimately a hugely disappointing experience. Its desperate attempts at providing horrific scares come across entirely dull and completely expected. It crushingly wastes its wonderful cast and promising setup. And it perpetrates the ultimate cinematic sin of being boring. Horror films should leave a deep impact on its viewer, but nothing will leave the slightest of impressions here. A Sunday visit to church would likely be more terrifying.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Demian Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Charlotte Hope, Michael Smiley, Ingrid Bisu, Sandra Teles, August Maturo, Jack Falk, Lynnette Gaza
Director: Corin Hardy
Screenplay: Gary Dauberman
Producers: Peter Safran, James Wan
Cinematography: Maxime Alexandre
Production Design: Jennifer Spence
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
Editors: Michel Aller, Ken Blackwell
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: 6th September 2018 (Australia)