Over the past few years The Conjuring Universe has become one of the most formidable franchises in cinema and is certainly the hottest horror series on the market right now. With two core films and two “Annabelle” films in the books it’s only natural that the expanded universe inspired by the legendary real-life cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren would introduce a new spinoff in 2018 with “The Nun”. This is the first film in the franchise not directly inspired by a real life haunting although its main antagonist is based on real mythology and its location is a real haunting place while the idea of the nun haunting the Warren’s was also inspired by real nightmares of the actual Lorraine Warren. That said though “The Nun” serves as an intriguing challenge to see where this franchise can go beyond its real-life inspirations by taking the most creative liberty of any film so far in the franchise. So, does this help “The Nun” live up to the hype and add to the franchise or is it proof that The Conjuring Universe may finally be going stale? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “The Nun”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Nun” is the second film in The Conjuring Universe chronologically (after “Annabelle: Creation” which was set in the 40s) taking place in 1952 Romania. After a pair of nuns encounters and evil spirit in their monastery one of them commits suicide by hanging and is later found by Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a French-Canadian man who brings supplies to the nuns. The Vatican learns of the death and sends troubled priest Father Burke (Demián Bicher) to investigate and ensure the safety of the monetary. He is joined by novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) who often experiences visions. While investigating the facility Father Burke and Sister Irene become tormented by a demonic being named Valak (Bonnie Aarons) who takes several forms to frighten the two, most notably that of a nun. The two soon learn the dark history of the monastery and its former owner’s attempt to open a gateway to release Valak into the world. To stop Valak Burke, Irene and Frenchie work to locate an ancient artifact with the power to send the demon away and seal the portal between worlds.
“The Nun” sports a relatively small cast with only three main actors plus the actress who portrays Valak in its nun form. Taissa Farmiga, the sister of Vera Farmiga who plays Lorraine Warren in the two “Conjuring” movies, plays novitiate nun Sister Irene. It is never actually stated that Irene is in any way related to Lorraine Warren, despite the perfect casting for such a twist. Her ability to receive visions makes Sister Irene an important figure in this story. Thanks to her being a nun in training and her ability to see things others cannot she is provided access, both mentally and physically, to the historical factors that lie behind the mystery of the monastery. Farmiga gives audiences a youthful, yet fully faithful, woman who already understands the existence of something greater than mere reality and fearlessly approaches it. Sister Irene comes off as a strong and capable believer, but Farmiga doesn’t ignore her character’s humanity. Sister Irene is the true hero of this story because she embraces her abilities and her belief in a higher power understanding that these gifts make her an important tool in defeating Valak. In fact, in many ways, she’s braver than the men because she’s still young and lacks the scars of age and experience that would otherwise cause her to flinch at facing a demon head on. I thoroughly enjoyed the confidence and personality Farmiga brought to the table and it’s further proof that great acting chops seems to run along her bloodline.
The other two main characters are Demián Bichir’s Father Burke and Jonas Bloquet’s Frenchie and both are also well defined characters worth praise. While neither of them are as well defined or memorable as Farmiga’s Sister Irene they both have their own personalities and backgrounds that play into their significance to the story. Father Burke is a trouble man of faith who killed a young boy during an exorcism, something that still haunts him both literally and figuratively even years later. Bichir might be overshadowed by his younger female counterpart Farmiga, but he does bring his A game presenting Father Burke as a strong-willed and determined man whose experience alone leads him to believe something much more sinister is at work at the monastery that can not be ignored. Jonas Bloquet’s Frenchie is a womanizer who initially seems to fall for Sister Irene before discovering she is a nun in training and this creates an immediate connection between the two. Bloquet plays the comic relief of the film and does so well adding some great levity in moments of distress and possessing a required charm that helps add a bit of humanity and even a touch of skepticism to keep things interesting. They’re both great performances that help compliment an even more notable performance from Farmiga.
Of course the star of the show is Valak, aka The Nun, who is portrayed once again by Bonnie Aarons who also brought the character to life in “The Conjuring 2”. As with the second “Conjuring” film Valak is sufficiently creepy and Aarons, in full makeup and appropriate attire, does an amazing job at taking a symbol of peace and harmony and making it a frightening image of darkness and despair. She’s actually not on screen long, or at least out of the shadows very long, but when we do get to see Valak in all its glory Aarons owns every bit of screen time to frighten and disgust in all the right ways. I’ll dive more into what I liked about Valak in a minute, but I wanted to give special credit to the actress that portrays the demonic entity because she certainly deserves it and owned her opportunity to portray what could be a new icon of cinematic horror.
Well since I’m already on the subject let’s look at Valak itself. I actually believe Valak is scarier than almost any of the beings we’ve seen so far in The Conjuring Universe. Bathsheba, The Crooked Man and the Annabelle doll and demon are all worthy and creepy beings themselves but Valak in its nun form is a truly scary design and image that I must say gave me chills even though I was already familiar with it from both “The Conjuring 2” and the trailers for “The Nun”. The design of the character specifically is intense and dark taking a normally bright and peaceful symbol and giving it a truly demonic visage that could challenge even the most creative of oxymoronic Halloween costumes for best in show. The Nun is the reason many will be seeing this film so it’s a good thing that the filmmakers, including up and coming director Corin Hardy, took the time to fully realize the image they wanted imprinted in viewers’ minds. Valak is spooky, memorable, and downright vile in appearance and its ability to shape shift and its clear personality and tendency to taunt its victims all make for a mysterious and worthy villain for this “Conjuring” spinoff.
I truly loved the atmosphere of this film as well and how the story takes the time to build on the mythology of The Conjuring Universe. This film is set at the real life supposedly haunted Cârța Monastery in Romania although it was filmed at locations in Hunedoara and Transylvania. Setting it in a real-world haunted location adds to the mythos and grounded nature of the series that keeps it set in the real world and gives it a legitimate connection to actual hauntings and paranormal mysteries. Using a castle setting covered with crosses both inside and out and dampening the color to a grey pallet even in daylight adds to the dreary, hopeless nature of the film. Honestly for me I don’t ever remember a castle being so spooky in my life and the fact that much of the building contains religious memorabilia and artifacts only adds to that atmosphere. This all comes together to make “The Nun” one of the most immersive films in The Conjuring Universe because the claustrophobia and confusion felt by the characters bleeds off the screen and into the viewers’ psyches. We are just as uncomfortable as the characters and just as frightened by sudden arrivals of figures we don’t completely understand. When all comes down to an admittedly awesome twist near the final confrontation all of that hopelessness only intensifies. While I won’t call “The Nun” anywhere near the scariest film in the series it certainly manages to bring some great jumps and moments of discomfort and suspense that are complimented by great timing, detailed environments and set pieces, and a villain that terrifies in all the best ways.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
I wasn’t as impressed with the story although I will say it’s far from the worst horror tale I’ve ever seen. I’ll start off by saying that despite not having a lot to work with everyone in this film and behind the scenes do their very best and mostly succeed in bringing out the most enjoyable aspects of a thinly laid mystery. There are some very neat connections to the rest of the “Conjuring” movies including a final scene that shows an unexpected character as the uniting factor between this film and the others. However, I can’t say these connecting ties feel necessarily natural. Some of them in fact feel a bit forced and out of left field. While they don’t distract from the story they certainly don’t feel like they truly belong as part of this narrative. “The Nun” does also lean heavily on some pretty predictable scares that work but are so spread out that we get more story than freights and the story isn’t really great. There are several plot holes including the fact that Valak can’t leave the monastery because of the crosses placed around the structure and yet can still affect the villagers nearby. It’s said that praying keeps Valak at bay but never explained why its influence can spread even if Valak needs a host to physically leave the property. These are concepts thrown in to increase the stakes but they’re all poorly developed and executed.
The whole story also surrounds a MacGuffin, which if you don’t know, is an item that has significance to the plot as a desired object by the protagonists or antagonists with little or no narrative explanation outside of its name and a simple purpose for this specific story. It’s an item that can stop Valak and yet none of the nuns have ever used it even when they realized the demon was running loose, another plot hole worth noting. To piggy back off of that I’ll also note that more than any other movie in this franchise “The Nun” goes way into the realm of pure paranormal fiction horror whereas the involvement of otherworldly concepts is much more subtle in the other four films. In “The Nun” Valak’s origins are explained using some very odd religious concepts and even acknowledging physical gateways to other worlds that for me felt ridiculous, contrived, and much less inspired and mysterious than the previous stories explored in this franchise that made the paranormal feel so real and legitimately frightening. I felt there were much better ideas that even I could think up to explain the existence and terror of Valak. It doesn’t make “The Nun” unwatchable but from a story perspective it does make this one of the least creative “Conjuring” films.
I did enjoy “The Nun”. Even if it’s not the best “Conjuring” movie it’s still a fun horror thrill ride with great acting, an extremely memorable and well-designed villain, insanely spooky atmosphere and plenty of legitimate scares and creepy moments that are sure to satisfy fans of this long running horror universe. The story is a bit bland and uninspired as is Valak’s origin but there’s plenty here to satisfy and engage all the same. I’m honestly surprised that the Nun as a villain actually made for such an awesome standalone movie. We’ve seen with “Annabelle” how these standalone projects could go wrong but, to use cliché baseball terms, if the other three films can be considered relative home runs “The Nun” is at least a double if not a triple. It’s a perfectly serviceable horror movie that may not hit the absolute highs of the franchise, but it does more than enough to show that there’s still plenty of staying power and potential in The Conjuring Universe to go around. I have no qualms recommending it despite its obvious imperfections.