“The Conjuring” franchise hits a new low with “The Nun”

Nuns have every right to be placed among the ranks of clowns and spiders as things that should be universally feared without any questions. They live in places that are naturally creaky, surround themselves with candles in dark rooms and always seem to be lurking somewhere, waiting to smack unruly children with a thin stick. Taking one nun – or rather a convent – placing them in a deep, dark castle and throwing in some demonic elements should’ve made for a slam dunk horror movie. So how – how on earth does The Nun manage to squander every opportunity to be scary, suspenseful or even the slightest bit unnerving?

It’s an anomaly that this latest entry in the Conjuring franchise is as disappointing, confusing, unintentionally funny and flat out unscary as it is. Seriously, it took effort for this thing to be bad.  We can start with the premise, which finds Father Burke (Demian Bichir) tasked with investigating the suicide of a nun at a Monastery in Romania. This suicide opens the movie and introduces us to the movie’s attempt to call back the classic gothic era of horror movies, later given new life in middle-of-the-century Hammer films. There’re swirling mists, dangling crosses, dark corridors and a lingering of danger – all for what makes for a promising opening. Before the nun leaps to her death the demon haunting the castle – Valak, taking the form of a nun with very sharp facial features – slowly glides towards her, extinguishing the candles as she goes. Gives me the willies.

But what starts on the right foot soon comes undone, as Father Burke is sent on his quest, with him bringing the young Sister “Not Yet a Nun” Irene (Taissa Farmiga). As they travel to Romania it doesn’t take long to notice the environment doesn’t have the ambiance or tension to it that it should – calling to mind the darkness of past movies it borrows from, or even the modern feel of a Tim Burton movie (Sleepy Hollow, for instance). This stems from the fact director Corin Hardy seems to favor filming in the daytime, and as we come to discover bright lights. Overcast covers the sky, giving everything a grey look, but the darkness is gone, making the movie look grim without anything suspenseful accompanying it. The whole movie just looks…grey. Making it worse at the numerous (numerous) exposition shots of the castle, which was digitally constructed and looks like an old-school PlayStation game.

From these first 15 minutes on it becomes clear that whatever movie Hardy was intending to make was not going to come to fruition. Early on the duo meets a young French-Canadian given the apt nickname “Frenchie,” and actor Jonas Bloquet has the looks that would’ve found him in the lead of his own YA action franchise, if they still made those. Tensions evaporate when he throws in quips or tries to be charming, constantly failing to prove why he’s even here to begin with. He comes back later to save the day, his only purpose to serve as an insignificant, minor link to the first Conjuring movie. World building!

Once in the Monastery, the location naturally exudes some creepy vibes, and when Hardy lets the setting do its job the suspense can be effective. There’s an early scene when Burke tries to investigate a strange noise in their living quarters, the dark corners making for a maze of blackness. And later on, when Irene has moved to the area of the castle where the nun at the beginning died, she is woken by a nun praying in her room, and the focus moves on her as Irene moves to quietly investigate. These silent moments are what this movie was built for, and should have been embraced more wholeheartedly.

Father Burke (Demian Bichir) does some pondering while Valak (Bonnie Aarons) watches like a creep.

The problem with all this is that Hardy can’t contain himself. Many of the scenes, though have the potential to be horrifying, are diminished by the fact there is ALWAYS some kind of odd lighting going on. The biggest culprit is there’s a beam of moonlight constantly shining through the rooms in key scenes. Gone is the black of the room, illuminated only by candles and in its place a distracting, strange blue hue, making the environment way too bright. Mix that in with the fact that all these scenes result in a rushed, loud jump scare, in which Hardy and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre try to experiment with different camera angles, with clunky visual effects thrown in. There’s just so much going in that it avoids scary, leaps over fun and crash lands on mind-boggling.

Sadly, this applies to the treatment of the Valak too (Bonnie Aarons), who we were introduced to in The Conjuring 2 and managed to be so haunting she got her own spinoff. She gets a whopping 15 minutes of screen time here, and naturally, she’s at her most unsettling when she gets to just stand there, her eyes and features burning a nightmarish image in your head. But, like the other scares, she gets thrown into overproduced set pieces that come off more like the horror-action combo that plagues all bad, modern horror movies or breathes live into campy, playful B-movies. Nun comes out looking more like the former as it aims for mood but overshoots into ridiculous.

In movies like this, you look to the characters and hope there’s some redeemable quality in their stories. To that, I say what characters and what story? The script from Gary Dauberman (who wrote the excellent It and Annabelle: Creation only last year) gives away the mystery the leads are searching to solve (why did the nun kill herself?) early on, and we already know who Valak is, so I found their journey aimless by being steps ahead of them.

Burke and Irene themselves are lacking in any depth, with Burke haunted by visions of a boy who died during a demon infestation years ago. The only way this serves the plot is to offer up a demon boy so that he can pop out and scare us from time to time with his slimy, long tongue, looking like Toad from X-Men. Irene, who is brought on the journey because she’s had “visions” of the castle gets the same treatment. She has no arc, and we only ever see one vision, and on top of that she has a sort of telekinesis, I guess. Almost never does this factor into the story, so she has little to do and offers few reasons to care about her. Farmiga and Bichir try and do the best they could, taking poor writing as far as they can with emotion and commitment.

This movie is bad in a lot of ways. Too many ways, in fact. And the fault lies on director Corin Hardy. His goal here seems to make Nun the gonzo, crazy entry in the otherwise low-key horror franchise, but in the end, is trying WAY too hard to pull it off. Wonky camera angles and an inconsistent visual style deplete scenes of tension and scares – Some of which start out pretty well before descending into questionable madness. Litter this with character bordering anywhere between unengaging and embarrassing and there’s little reason to check this out in a theater.  I would like to see Hardy experiment more with an original premise, like a zombie film, but this was not the movie to go over-the-top with, and what could’ve been the most uniquely terrifying entry in the Conjuring franchise ends up being the dumbest.

Grade: D

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