The Conjuring franchise—which already includes two primary entries, as well as an Annabelle spin-off and prequel—is founded on sinister imagery, jump scares and horror clichés, with the latter element generally neutering the former two. Thus, it comes as no great shock that The Nun, a feature-length saga about a character first introduced in The Conjuring 2, follows diligently in its predecessors’ leaden footsteps. The most unholy thing about it is its by-the-books banality.
Directed by Corin Hardy (The Hallow), The Nun concerns the habit-wearing ghoul who was last seen on screen haunting Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren in 1977, sending the ghostbuster ominous premonitions about the death of her husband Earl (Patrick Wilson). Here, we jump back in time 25 years to 1952, and travel to misty rural Romania, where two nuns find themselves traversing a dank abbey corridor lined with crosses that ends at a door boasting the warning “God Ends Here.” So He does, as the duo quickly learn after opening the door like a couple of looking-for-trouble dolts. When one sister is sucked into the darkness by an unseen force, Horror 101-style (seriously, has any genre trope ever been as lamely overused as this one?), the other flees to her room. Fearful that she’s going to fall under the spell of the malevolent spirit, she leaps off her window ledge, a noose wrapped around her neck.
Because they have their finger on the pulse of Romanian cloister activity (despite the fact that the abbey appears to be cut off from all civilization), the Vatican immediately becomes aware of this incident. In response, its elders call for Father Burke (Demián Bichir), whom we learn is an expert at “miracle hunting.” Burke is ordered to visit the Romanian abbey to investigate this crime as well as to determine whether the site is still holy. Moreover, he’s told that he must be accompanied on his trip by Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate (i.e. a nun-in-training who’s yet to take her final vows) that we first meet telling Catholic school kids that, contrary to their old fuddy-duddy teacher, dinosaurs really did exist, and that the Bible is “God’s love letter to us” and something to be questioned rather than believed outright.
According to the Vatican, Irene is familiar with this Romanian region, which is puzzling to Burke and news to Irene, who’s never visited the country. That suggests a forthcoming mystery to be further explored. Don’t hold your breath, though—any way you cut it, the eventual explanation for that plot point is absurd, and as it turns out, also inconsequential to the action at hand.
Trying to make logical sense of The Nun is hopeless, as characters react to spooky phenomenon by running out into the dark eerie night, take at face value the word of shrouded specters, and generally stumble their way into danger whenever possible. This makes it no different, of course, than countless like-minded efforts, including its Conjuring forefathers, who’ve already run such stale tricks into the ground. At least Hardy’s film occasionally generates a passable Hammer Horror vibe. Foggy forests populated by phantom figures, chambers filled with candles, cobwebs and musty sarcophagi, and a decaying castle that would make Count Dracula weep bloody tears are all part of this package. So too are tomes rife with illustrations of flesh-eating hellspawn, flashbacks to ancient pentagram-required rituals, and visions of crimson-stained steps and statues of the Virgin that have plagued Irene since childhood, and whose recurring message – “Mary points the way” – holds the key to stopping the abbey’s malevolence.
Then there’s the Nun (Bonnie Aarons), whom Father Burke learns is actually a demon named Valek—or, as a book describes it, “the defiler, the profane, the Marquis of Snakes.” That’s not the only overwrought dialogue peddled by Gary Dauberman’s script (from a story co-conceived with franchise mastermind James Wan). Burke is fond of saying things like “There’s a powerful evil presence in this place,” and Irene, talking about her visions, spouts pronouncements such as “They felt so real.” Burke and Irene are joined on their quest by Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the local lothario who serves as their de facto guide. He’s a comedic-relief sidekick who functions as a fountain of exposition (“Now, my friends, you’re in the Dark Ages!”), a person-in-peril for one set piece, and a deus ex machina device in the final act. He’s also French-Canadian, which raises the question: What is a French-Canadian doing in 1952 Romania? The answer: Stop asking obvious questions, and just go with it!
Although she’s the title character, the Nun proves a dispiriting agent of death, materializing at the end of underlit corridors or in mirrors, where she howls like the dickens, the better to provide a good look at her sharp teeth and glowing eyes. Director Hardy depicts her with as much creepiness as the material will allow, but she’s a bland bogeywoman, more interesting as a visual concept than as an actual antagonist. That’s especially true given that her end goal is that old scary-movie standby—possession of a human soul, in order to fulfill an (ill-defined) evil prophesy. Like its Conjuring compatriots, The Nun is a wannabe-nightmare about corporeal violation and manipulation, with Satanic spooks looking to defile and control innocent souls. The problem being, there are no three-dimensional souls worth caring about here, including Irene, who’s mainly captivating because Farmiga often looks like the spitting image of her sister Vera—as well as channels some of her magnetic wide-eyed charisma.
Speaking of spitting—expectorating factors into the finale of The Nun, along with faceless nun hordes cracking their necks and the repeated sight of our protagonists being hurled into walls by supernatural fiends. What never appears is an original idea, or even an effective jolt to rattle one’s nerves and break up the monotony. In the end, it’s just The Exorcist embellished with a monstrous religious grandma, some thudding organ music and a modest amount of gore, as well as a closing epilogue that weaves its action back into the larger Conjuring tapestry—and, in the process, reminds one that the franchise’s defining trait continues to be regurgitation of predictable conventions in a manner devoid of inspiration or honest-to-goodness terror.