The Conjuring 2 might not have been able to replicate the immediate successes of James Wan’s first entry in the series, but it did set up a pretty intriguing demonic entity known as Valak – a name that would crop up throughout the film in scene backgrounds. Valak’s identity, though, was largely left open, especially the reasoning behind her creepy nun presence. Of course, as Wan and company opened up their own Conjuring film universe, it was clear that Valak would get her own story in the form of The Nun. If fans were looking for a true origin story, though, The Nun will quickly let them down.
Gary Dauberman’s screenplay brings viewers back to 1952 at a Romanian abbey that has been largely abandoned thanks to its insanely creepy exterior – dimly lit forest, massive foreboding towers, and a giant yard of crosses just for starters. There a priest (Demian Bichir) and a nun who hasn’t taken her vows yet (Taissa Farmiga) converge on this nunnery to figure out why a sister committed suicide by hanging herself at the front door.
Instead of truly exploring the initial conjuring of Valak, The Nun routinely glosses over the history of her coming, instead giving yet another historical rendition of how evil came to manifest itself in the abbey – medieval magical manipulation opened a doorway that let bad stuff inside, and nuns have been keeping it at bay for centuries, always searching for a sacred artifact that holds Jesus Christ’s blood and the only method of vanquishing the demon. The idea is convoluted and arguably less interesting, especially because Valak just tends to lurk on the outskirts of every aspect of the movie.
Bichir and Farmiga give some good moody performances, but from the outset it’s clear that the majority of their time will be spent making spooked faces at the camera as all sorts of calamity pops up behind them, in front of them, to the side of them, and below them. Director Corin Hardy relies far, far too much on the generic jump scare; the eerie atmospheric builds of The Conjuring are here, but the scares are all telegraphed and they become somewhat tedious after the fourth nun pop-up. There are a few legitimately spooky scenes – a tense one in which Bichir talks to a completely black-veiled nun comes to mind – but ultimately The Nun‘s terror misses the mark because it’s all too familiar.
It doesn’t help that the supernatural encounters and history at the abbey is a mess of plot holes and jumbled ideas; there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s happening here, all collected in a box called “demonic stuff.” Whereas The Conjuring was a tidy storyline about ghosts and possession, The Nun jumps all over the place – disappearing nuns, heavy Catholic imagery, a door meant to keep bad things out that seems very ineffective, a mystical key that opens a secret compartment with the Jesus Christ artifact, ghoul nuns rising from graves. It’s so convoluted that trying to piece together all of the elements makes your head spin. Speaking of which, at least the film does have a few Exorcist III-inspired moments.
Still, it’s not enough to make a mark on the genre. The Nun can be fun, it can be moody, but it certainly feels too much like a derivative clone of The Conjuring. This is like taking Valak scenes from The Conjuring 2 and extending them for 100 minutes – fun for a while, but it quickly becomes old habit.