My feature film Black Lizard Tales recently premiered at the Cine-Excess International Film Festival and the screening garnered this review from Ellis Reed writing for Horrified magazine.
The Nun is the latest film in The Conjuring franchise, and the second spin-off strand after Annabelle and its sequel. Out of the five existing movies it is the first in chronological order (set in 1952), and there are top and tail moments which provide the necessary link to the other films. (Plus, the lead is played by Taissa Farmiga, sister to Vera, who plays a major character in the others).
Farmiga is a novice nun called Irene, who, along with Father Burke (Demian Bichir), is sent by the Vatican to investigate the grisly suicide of a nun at a remote Romanian convent (mentioned as the real life Carta Monstaery – but not actually shot there). They are assisted by a handsome young local delivery man who goes by the name of ‘Frenchie’ (Jonas Bloquet).
Critical reception so far has been (if we are putting as positive a spin as possible on it) lukewarm. Much of the criticism centres on the lack of emotional depth and meaning, and in particular the predominance of cheap ‘jump scares’ over genuinely unsettling content. To me, this feels a little like the criticisms Tony Pullis’s Stoke City used to receive after they had just beaten far more fanciful and talented Premier League teams – that they only won because of their rudimentary tactics, and that their wins were devalued because they didn’t play the ‘proper’ way. Similarly, the critics who lament the tactics employed by Hardy are saying that The Nun is only scary because it is not playing fair.
Such critiques a little unjust. There absolutely is an extraordinary amount of jumpy moments, and it is accurate to say that by the end they become rather predictable and lose much of their power. However, many of the jumps are well handled and Hardy uses the screen space inventively. Also, part of the fun of this sort of popcorn horror movie is the audience’s knowledge of conventions around the use of safe and unsafe screen space, and attempting to anticipate where the next attack is going to come from (out of the darkness, from behind or in front of a character, or when the camera pans or tilts, for example). Mostly, the film gets these moments ‘right’, and the early scenes also play with expectations by setting up a jump that doesn’t arrive when an audience may be anticipating it. There is also an effective moment which delivers the anticipated jump, but triggers it a fraction too early (for this viewer at least) to be adequately prepared. During these scenes, and in another sequence which makes an explicit homage to Lucio Fulci, the film is in full control of its effect.
Also, in its favour is some terrific design work – especially around the set construction, and presentation of flowing robes, and characters (both dead and alive) gliding down corridors and from behind pillars or trees etc. The positioning of actors creates some striking compositions, as does the use of high and low angle camera placement.
Unfortunately, the film’s worst moments come late on during the climax when Hardy appears to lose confidence in the tone of the material. Jarringly, characters begin to use action movie-esque wisecracks. Not only are these unnecessary and simply unfunny, they feel cheap and tacked on. The humorous way Hardy plays with horror convention in the first 70 minutes is far more subtle and admirable.
It is also a shame because the final battle contains some fantastic stuff with a group of faceless nuns rampaging down a corridor, and a dungeon full of nuns dressed in white habits, with bloodied bags placed over their heads. Wisecracking heroes add nothing to such potentially exciting set-pieces.
As stated, this is a popcorn horror film, concerned with an audience’s reaction in the cinema at the time, and less troubled with unsettling viewers on a long term basis. It does not compare to recent future horror classics such as It Follows (2014) or Hereditary (2018), or even the undervalued Unfriended (2014). Yes, critics who say it lacks substance have a point, but this suggests a lack of understanding for what this sort of movie is. It is undoubtedly an ephemeral piece of work, but that’s ok, because the next episode in the franchise, or some other series, will be coming soon. This is not about creating a timeless, standalone experience, but about keeping the plate spinning for a franchise that lets the audience know exactly what they are in for. And, with this admittedly lowish bar, The Nun succeeds.
This is the first episode of my web series Keeper of the Tombs. In truth, I am merely experimenting with the format. The individual films were not intended to be made as a web series. Instead, it began as a stand-alone film. After shooting it, I decided it would be better constructed as an episodic narrative. Around this time I began to research the idea of making a web series. I decided to put the two together and use the footage as an experiment. So, Keeper of the Tombs is now a web series where I intend to experiment with the format, with a view to producing one from scratch sometime in the future.
It stars Paul Richards (who also co-directed), and was shot by Mark Castro and Max Philo.
Episode #2 is currently being edited and will be available soon.
In the lead up to the Waves of Horror 2015 festival we are hosting a series of one off screenings, beginning with The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2014) at the Gulbenkian cinema in Canterbury on Monday 23rd February at 9pm.
It will be followed by a series of other European horror films including Martyrs on Thursday 5th March at 9pm(2008) and Amer Tuesday 10th March at 6.30pm (2009).
All of this is in preparation for our big annual festival, taking place this year on Halloween weekend 30th Oct – 1st Nov. Hopefully we will be hosting a short film competition as part of the festival weekend.
Here is a link to my essay on the Nunsploitation cycle published in Offscreen film journal.
Abstract: In an era of renewed critical appreciation of Italian genre/exploitation cinema (such as Austin Fisher’s Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western) there is one cycle of films where any appreciation appears to be absent: the Nunsploitation movie. These films, set in convents where a nascent lust bubbles just under the surface, examine themes of feminism, radical left wing politics, and the role of the Church and religion in society. This paper examines the way two films, The Nuns of Saint Archangel, and Flavia, the Heretic, tackle these issues through their mise en scene and narrative structure.