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.