The Conjuring franchise has been as likely to go backwards in time as forwards, and as a result the prequels have been mounting faster than the sequels. The most recent installment is The Nun, which takes place in post-war Romania, and has a lot to do with a scary spectral nun who first raised her habit in The Conjuring 2. The Nun isn’t the smartest entry in the series, but it does get the job done.
Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight, FX’s The Bridge, The Heat, Showtime’s Weeds), plays Father Burke, a former army chaplain who’s also haunted by a past exorcism gone bad. That notwithstanding, a Vatican X-Files committee assigns him to investigate the suicide of a nun at a remote abbey in Romania. He’s instructed to take Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate, with him, because she “knows the territory,” although he soon discovers she’s never been to Romania. The audience is likely to suspect long before the characters that the ‘territory” Sister is familiar with is actually the realm of the supernatural, and sure enough it turns out that she ha2016s a history of experiencing visions.
Once in Romania, the movie takes on the tone of vintage Hammer, complete with superstitious peasants and a castle one will admit exists. Father Burke and Sister Irene look up a local known as “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), who found the body of the nun who committed suicide, hanging outside the abbey from an upper window. They convince the reluctant Frenchie to accompany them back to the abbey.
Despite an encounter with a mysterious and intimidating Mother Superior which would have most people with an IQ above room temperature scrambling for the door, Father Burke and Sister Irene decide to spend the night in the abbey, housed in a crumbling castle that looks like Christopher Lee should be lurking in the shadows. That’s when the tempo upshifts markedly and The Nun hits its sinister stride.
Bichir plays Father Burke with commendable sincerity, but cannot always overcome the clunky dialogue he’s periodically handed. Farmiga, the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who stars in the parent Conjuring movies fares better. She also bears a very strong resemblance to her older sister, which may leave audiences waiting for a connection between their characters that the movie does not provide. Bloquet, who plays Frenchie, is actually Belgian. His character is French Canadian. Confused yet? His role in the movie is largely to provide the comic relief, although this is a movie that’s inclined to beat comic relief to death with stout stick.
Make no mistake – the movie has all the logic of a Trump rally. Although the overall premise (which has something to do with a demonic presence that can take various shapes and needs a human host to escape the castle) is played with reasonable consistency, the characters make every rookie horror movie mistake except having sex. Why would you split up to go exploring dark corridors at night? Do you have absolutely have to follow every spectral character who drifts menacingly into a very darkened hallway? And you’ve got to believe that the Catholic Church has some sort of standards that have to be met for acquiring real property, and you’d think that being located at the gates of Hell would be a disqualifying factor.
But despite the plot holes and logic lapses, The Nun absolutely succeeds when it gets to its cruising altitude. Try as you might to predict the jumps, jump you will, right on cue. Director Corin Hardy, making only his second feature, knows the tricks, and exploits them ruthlessly, including the Paranormal Activity gag of having a spectral schmooey standing right behind the main character, who doesn’t see it, but the audience does. The pace increases as the movie goes along, and the bottom line is a pretty effective haunted house rollercoaster.
And then he has his secret weapon – director of photography Maxime Alexandre. The Nun is probably the best-photographed movie of the year. Seriously. Alexandre shoots virtually nighttime exterior in day-for-night, and they’re gorgeous, moody and atmospheric. Shafts of light struggle to pierce through the branches of trees that overhang the obligatory forest like a crumbling roof. The palette is weighted heavily towards blues, greens and ash grays, (the castle interiors are lit in the coppery glow of torches and candles), evoking more than anything else Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is a seriously handsome film that succeeds in immersing the audience in its phantasmagorical landscape.
The bookend sequences that tie The Nun to The Conjuring 2 are clumsily inserted, and deserved more attention. The special effects are more than adequately convincing, and gory enough to justify the movie’s R rating.
The Nun works best if you check your brain at the door, but if you resist, it’ll probably beat you into submission anyway. Like any good nightmare, logic and intellect have little to do with this movie’s crisp hour and a half reign of terror. Pick it apart over aprés movie pizza, when this one says “Jump,” you are going to ask “How high?”