by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 6, 2018

One of the unlikelier developments in horror cinema during the 2010s has been the expansion of director James Wan’s musty ghost story The Conjuring (2013) into a full-fledged cinematic universe, complete with sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. Although Wan’s original feature boasts a couple of genuinely eerie set pieces, its critical and box-office success remain perplexing: Beyond its clumsy screenplay and derivative funhouse tricks, the film just isn’t that scary. The feature’s distasteful apologism for real-life demonologists and pseudo-religious fraudsters Lorraine and Ed Warren is another concern, but The Conjuring’s worst sin is fumbling the genre fundamentals. Since 2013, however, the underwhelming first film has spawned a more frightening sequel (The Conjuring 2 [2016]), a wretched spinoff about a demonic doll (Annabelle [2014]), and an unexpectedly gratifying prequel to the spinoff (Annabelle: Creation [2017]).

The latest chapter in this dubious franchise, The Nun, concerns a demonic entity that has been lurking around the periphery of the series, infesting the psychic visions of paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). Taking the form of an inhuman religious sister in a severe black-and-white habit, the unholy being Valak (Bonnie Aarons) taunted Lorraine in The Conjuring 2 with premonitions of her husband’s grisly death. In that film, Valak left an intensely unsettling impression, looming out of the shadows only rarely to flash its powder-white countenance, monstrous yellow eyes, and gaping maw of needle-like fangs. With The Nun, director Corin Hardy – working from a screenplay by Gary Dauberman, who also has a story credit alongside Wan – places this parochial-school devil front-and-center, and in the process banishes much of its shivery mystique. If nothing else, the new film is an illustration that well-received ancillary characters are sometimes best left on the sidelines, where their enigmatic presence can serve as an enduring source of horror.

Set in 1952, The Nun is the first film in the Conjuring franchise, chronologically speaking, but it isn’t really an origin story in the usual sense. (Presumably, the ageless Valak is at least old as Lucifer’s rebellion.) Hardy’s feature is the tale of Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, younger sister to Vera), a wide-eyed novitiate improbably tapped by the Vatican to assist “miracle hunter” Father Burke (Demián Bichir) with an investigation at a remote Romanian convent. One of the sisters at this imposing Gothic structure – loosely based on the real-world Cârța Monastery, a former Cistercian structure established in the 13th century – has recently committed suicide by hanging herself from the upper floors. Ostensibly, Sister Irene has been sent along to smooth Father Burke’s access to the religious sisters at Cârța, as they never venture outside the convent walls and are generally prohibited from interacting with men. In truth, it is Irene’s childhood visions of the Virgin Mary that seem to have piqued the Holy See’s interest and prompted them to send her on this grim mission.

The priest and novitiate journey to Romania and rendezvous with Maurice, nicknamed "Frenchie" (Jonas Bloquet), a suave French-Canadian émigré who delivers a weekly shipment of food and other staples to the convent, per a centuries-old agreement with the nearby village. It was he who first found the crow-pecked corpse of the hanged nun. Against his better instincts, Frenchie agrees to escort the newcomers, guiding them along mist-shrouded forest roads and through copses of wooden crosses to the convent’s door – where the stone steps are somehow still sticky with the dead sister’s blood, weeks after the fact. The remaining nuns are a virtual phantom presence: silent, flitting figures glimpsed as they peek through arched windows and disappear down candlelit hallways. In a vaulted antechamber, a black-veiled abbess (Lynnette Gaza) greets the visitors curtly and ominously, wheezing that they should return the following day if they wish to speak to the nuns.

By this point in the story, The Nun’s modest strengths and substantial weaknesses as a standalone work of supernatural horror are clear. In the positive column, director Hardy and production designer Jennifer Spence exploit the film’s rustic Romanian setting to fine, gloomy effect. This is Vlad Tepes country, after all, and Spence uses the natural resonance of the locales as a handy excuse to crank up the heady gothic atmosphere. This isn’t the neo-Technicolor madness of Crimson Peak (2015) or the damp period verisimilitude of the recent The Little Stranger, but something closer to the slightly heightened cinematic reality of black-and-white chillers like Dracula (1931), The Wolfman (1941), and Black Sabbath (1960). Admittedly, Hardy and Spence fudge the historical and regional details, often blatantly: There is a conspicuous absence of spoken and written Romanian in the film, and no sense that the country has recently been reborn as a Communist vassal to the Soviet Union. (Most implausibly, Jo Stafford croons “You Belong to Me” on the radio, which would make sense in the U.S. or U.K., but seems a doubtful late-night selection for a backwater Romanian station in 1952.) Ultimately, this sort of carelessness isn’t really a nagging concern, however, given that The Nun doesn’t take place in the real world, but in Movie Transylvania, where the Dark Ages roll on and the peasants still spit on the ground to avert the evil eye.

Unfortunately, this moldering Old World atmosphere is about all The Nun has going for it. The film’s original sins are structural: By the time that Sister Irene and Father Burke decamp in frustration to an outlying residence on the convent grounds, the viewer is two or three steps ahead of the protagonists. It’s glaringly obvious that the Cârța Monastery houses a monstrous evil, and that the Vatican’s envoys are in grave danger every moment that they remain at the convent. The audience can plainly see as much, even if the pious, dunderheaded heroes don’t. Eventually, a Sister Oana (Ingrid Bisu) furtively confides in Irene, revealing that the sisters of Cârța are charged with keeping the demon prince of snakes, Valak, in check through a centuries-long prayer vigil. The specifics hardly matter, however. The experience of The Nun is drearily consistent: Sister Irene and Father Burke wander around the convent and are terrorized by Valak’s over-the-top, phantasmagorical head games, to no discernable purpose. Lather, rinse, repeat. The jump-scares are dispensed with a kind of clockwork disregard for the broader drama or stakes; like sugary morsels of adrenaline, they’re momentarily titillating but ultimately unsatisfying. When the film eventually lurches into its climactic confrontation, it seems to do so simply because Hardy has grown bored with the characters falling into Valak’s clutches by repeatedly chasing taunting phantoms down shadowy corridors.

The film’s confused world-building does nothing to diminish the dreariness of these hackneyed haunted-house antics. Apart from the crumbling gothic ambiance, The Nun’s most appealing aspect is the go-for-broke nightmarishness of Valak’s methods. In their best moments, the demon’s sadistic games echo Wes Craven’s work when he was at the top of his creepshow game (e.g., A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors [1987]; The Serpent and the Rainbow [1988]). Unfortunately, Hardy commits early to the notion that Valak can affect the actual physical world with his Satanic powers. This leads to all sorts of logical conundrums that might have otherwise been hand-waved away if the demon lord were simply bedeviling his victims with vivid hallucinations. Time and space evidently mean nothing to the nigh-omnipotent Valak, so why doesn’t he simply slay the meddling priest and novitiate with a gout of hellfire or an infernal serpent the size of a school bus? In a different, more elegant horror feature – or a more relentlessly bonkers one – these sort of bothersome questions wouldn’t have room to sprout, but The Nun is so dully familiar that the viewer is inclined to pick at the plot holes out of sheer boredom.

The film is largely devoid of originality, preferring to flaccidly crib from a few decades’ worth of supernatural-horror features, from Poltergeist (1982) to Evil Dead II (1987) to The Exorcist (1973) and all its markedly less-accomplished progeny. Isolated flashbacks hint at a reasonably rich yet unexplored occult backstory for The Nun, a pulpy saga of holy relics, vengeful crusaders, and Devil-worshipping Slavic nobles. Such dark medieval fantasy isn’t a perfect tonal fit with the Conjuring universe – it feels more like the stuff of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics or Andrezj Sapkowski’s Witcher novels – but it points to fare that is potentially more stimulating than the monotonous fight-or-flight shocks that now prevail in slack mainstream horror entries like The Nun.

Rating: C-