By Jack Dignan
In the ever-growing number of cinematic universes at play over in Hollywood, the one I’ve consistently commended is one that never announced itself as being a cinematic universe at all. It’s The Conjuring Universe. The Nun, who we last saw as the insidious villain in the second Conjuring film before a brief tease during the credits of Annabelle Creation, is back and more threatening than ever. Much like the infamous doll, The Nun takes us back to the origins of her villainous ways, and while we now have more Conjuring spinoffs than we do Conjuring movies, there remain more good movies than bad movies. Unfortunately, this film falls into the latter category.
A young nun has taken her own life. While on the surface a suicide seems obvious, there’s something strange about the whole situation, and to make matters even weirder, nobody else in her nun convent seems to be aware of her death. So, the Vatican sends in two of their own to investigate the mysterious death; an older priest with a troubled past (Demián Bichir) and a young Nun on the brink of completing her training (Taissa Farmiga). Guided by Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), they’re forced to stay in this always eerie and mysteriously quiet convent, where their investigation leads them into discovering a dark, malevolent secret.
My admiration towards this franchise is as strong as ever, and while The Nun did leave a somewhat sour taste in my mouth, hope is not lost. This franchise is as vibrant and alive (or undead) as ever, and despite this film’s shortcomings, it does play around with some very interesting ideas. The nightmarish mythology surrounding the titular villain also known as Valak expands in new and frightening ways, bringing to light the star antagonist of 2016’s horror sequel. She proves she’s definitely worthy of her own franchise, but sadly, much like with Annabelle, this first installment struggles to make things go bump in the night.
A major issue here is that we already know so much about The Nun, and yet a huge chunk of the plot revolves around uncovering what’s terrifying this convent and how the first nun died. As an audience member, you understand everything right from the opening scene, and I honestly thought you were meant to, but when the truth is revealed to the characters, the film treats it as if we, the audience, had no idea. By the time screenwriter Gary Dauberman gets around to revealing what’s going on, we already know. There’s no major secret to uncover, nor surprise villain to be revealed. We’ve seen The Conjuring 2. And even if we haven’t, we saw that opening scene. We know what we’re in for.
But is it scary? The Conjuring movies, especially the spinoffs, have never been known for their highly sophisticated plots. They put character first, and tie these characters into scenarios so frightening you’ll be left with a perpetual feeling of wanting to vomit. So, The Nun’s plot is bad. That much is clear. However, there could still be hope for the scares, right? Unfortunately not. Some third act moments involving a large crowd of very sinister, very dead nuns leads to some enjoyable scares, where genuine creativity is finally put to use, but literally every scare before that is the camera panning to reveal something standing behind someone. It’s the same technique over and over, and it gets old fast.
It’s almost as if Dauberman and director Colin Hardy based all of their scares off of ones already utilised during this character’s previous appearance. You even have another scene involving a shadow walking across the walls of the room; only this time it’s twice as goofy and half as scary. There’s a reoccurring visual of a young possessed boy and each time he was on screen he got less and less scary, which is saying a lot as he never once made me uncomfortable or on edge. They not only explain who he is too early on for us to care, but also he just looks cheap. In fact, a lot of this movie does. Even the more grotesque corpses we see running around look like they were whipped together in half an hour, touched up by a subpar visual effect that makes it more laughable than scary.
The three leads all give admirable performances, but they can’t save their underdeveloped characters. Farmiga, younger sister of lead Conjuring actor Vera Farmiga, brings a much needed naivety and religious innocence to her role, matched by subtle determined that she masks with fear, so while her performance is an obvious standout, there’s nothing about her that you can latch onto. At least Frenchie had the fact that he was ashamed to be French-Canadian, but even then, that’s about all we get to know. Worst of all, you can definitely feel that this movie’s written by a man, because, despite a strong female cast, the third act sees Farmiga’s character transforming into a damsel in distress, even when the movie insists she isn’t. She’s always the only one in need of saving, and it’s up to the male heroes to save the day.
If nothing else, I am at least excited for the many memes this movie’s going to produce. There’s so much good material to work with here, and the internet is going to go wild. This film is hilarious, often intentionally but frequently not. And it wasn’t just me who was laughing either. Everyone was, which is never a good sign when attending a packed out session. Still, if the Conjuring formula is to be followed with these spinoff movies, I’m at least looking forward to the prequel’s prequel. Maybe then we’ll finally get The Nun movie we deserve.
2 1/2 Stars
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