What it’s about: Sister Irene is a nun-in-training who is commissioned to accompany a priest to an ancient Romanian castle that serves as an abbey. A young nun committed suicide by hanging outside of her window and the locals tell stories about other evil things that have happened there.. Sister Irene and Father Burke are tasked to determine whether the grounds are still holy or if this tragedy has brought unspeakable evil. They must spend a terrifying night inside the abbey, a night that will test their faiths and their sanity as they are tormented by an unholy spirit. With the other inhabitants of the abbey only able to hold off this evil through their prayer, Sister Irene and Father Burke decide more action is needed in order to keep this force from the outside world.
The Nun is set up as an origin story for everyone’s favorite painting/demonic spirit from The Conjuring 2, but it really isn’t that. There are aspects that bring this story directly into the Conjuring-verse [mostly through a bookend narrative device] but The Nun is a pretty standalone horror experience — if you haven’t seen any of The Conjuring films, you won’t be missing out on too much … except that The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are much better than The Nun [you can put Annabelle: Creation in that pile, as well].
A test I have for the effectiveness of a horror film doesn’t come until I actually leave the theater — the best continue to leave me shaken, as if the movie is out into the world now. There is something about The Nun that prevented that. I’m not sure if it is the isolated far-away setting or how the film is wrapped up, but the film’s scares aren’t going to follow me outside of its 90 minute runtime.
Part of it is certainly that the title Nun isn’t all that scary herself. She has a creepy presence, certainly, and the character worked well enough in The Conjuring 2. She’s lacking here, though, when the entire focus of the film is on her. She stands around ominously, maybe screams every once in a while. That’s about it.
I also think that I might be getting too used to the Conjuring style of filmmaking, especially the floaty, intricate camerawork that was initially the prize of the series. In The Nun, whenever the camera began to swivel or swoop, I was too aware of what was coming. It is still impressive on a technical level, but it doesn’t inform the narrative or the scares as well as they used to.
A majority of the horror beats are more like a zombie film than a ghost story, which was unexpected.
Still, the decent scares come around in the film from trickery. This makes sense in the context of being haunted by a demon. When the film is at its best, the perfect way to describe it is devilish. The more elaborate setpieces were few and far between the usual “something’s behind you” scares, unfortunately.
That said, The Nun is missing a crucial aspect of any comedy. Frankly, I don’t recall much comedic relief in any films within the franchise, but The Conjuring films in particular had a lighter touch through the performances of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. It is particularly missing in The Nun, however. One character, Irene and Burke’s local guide Frenchie, is meant to fill this void as the 3rd act comic relief, but he falls completely flat, more hammy than anything else. Though the film certainly could have used more playfulness, this half attempt only made things worse.
Overall, the acting in the film is fine, but the casting of Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene is more fascinating on the page than on the screen. She is, of course, Vera Farmiga’s younger sister and this is notable because of Vera’s role as Lorraine 20 years after the events of The Nun. Even more, the sisters share an undeniable likeness, which begs for speculation of a possible deeper connection between the two characters. Anti-spoiler: The Nun doesn’t go there. Someone who knows the series more than me could probably break down some clues that might suggest a tease for future films but it seems pretty unlikely that there is any other connection. It’s just kind of weird.