Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Corin Hardy
Stars: Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons.
This is the fifth film in the lucrative The Conjuring universe that was created by Australian filmmaker James Wan in 2013, and it centres around the sinister nun Valak, whose unsettling portrait featured in The Conjuring 2. The evil entity of Valak was used by Wan as a bridge to link the horrific haunting at Amityville with the spooky proceedings in Endfield. But the malevolent and menacing otherworldly figure has also haunted Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga, who has been a mainstay of the series), so this film works as a prequel.
The Nun is set in the secluded Abbey of St Carla in Romania in 1952. A young nun commits suicide after witnessing the horrific presence of Valak. Worried that the tragic death will have a negative effect on the holy ground the church stands on, the Vatican dispatches veteran exorcist Father Burke (Mexican actor Demian Bichir, from The Hateful Eight, etc) to investigate. Like all good cinematic exorcists, Father Burke is haunted by a failed exorcism, and this is an opportunity for redemption. He is accompanied by Sister Irene (played in an interesting piece of casting by Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera), a novitiate working at a hospital in London.
Once in the Gothic abbey, they receive some assistance from the groundskeeper, known as Frenchie (played by Belgian actor Jonas Bloquet, from Elle, etc), who found the dead nun’s body. Burke is buried alive. Burke consults some ancient manuscripts to try and learn more about the demonic figure haunting the abbey. Sister Irene questions the other nuns and discovers that they have to pray regularly to keep Valak at bay after a pompous duke opened a gate to Hell in the bowels of the abbey. Spooky events follow, but little of what transpires is original or particularly scary.
The film has been written by Gary Dauberman, who worked on the recent remake of It, and he obviously knows the tropes of the genre. But The Nun is a bit of a mess and fails to really give us an interesting backstory. Dauberman borrows ideas and themes from other films. And those who have watched superior films about the battle between good and evil, exorcisms and possessed nuns (such as the 1973 classic The Exorcist and Ken Russell’s frenetic and disturbing The Devils) will find The Nun sorely lacking in originality.
Irish director Corin Hardy (2015’s The Hallow, etc) throws every cliché of the demonic possession genre at the screen here – rotating crosses, ancient manuscripts, flickering lights, ominous shadowy figures, darkened labyrinthine hallways and cellars, creaking halls and doors – and the film is steeped in the tropes of 70s Gothic horror. But his direction somehow lacks Wan’s sense of menace and assured understanding of what makes a film scary. And much of it is tedious and repetitive.
Most of the action is confined to a single location, and there is some good production design from Jennifer Spence (Annabelle: Creation, etc) and the sound design is also very good and adds to the atmosphere. The interiors are dimly lit by Belgian cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (Maniac, etc), which creates a visceral contrast between darkness and light and which adds to the uneasy atmosphere. The real life Corvin Castle, one of the largest in Europe, doubles for the grim monastery itself.
The small cast do what they can with the familiar material. Farmiga is good as Sister Irene and brings some solid emotional depth to her character. Bonnie Aarons reprises her role as the demonic nun, a figure designed to elicit chills in the audience. Bloquet is good as Frenchie, and he brings some much needed touches of humour to lighten the grim tone.
A brief epilogue makes the link between this film and The Conjuring 2 explicit. But the by-the-numbers The Nun is easily the weakest entry in The Conjuring series so far, and even at a relatively brisk 96 minutes seems to outstay its welcome. The Nun is a sign that the franchise is running out of fresh ideas.