Film Review: Is The Nun (USA, 2018) a sinister ghost story or middling monster movie?

The Conjuring universe began five years ago, spurred by James Wan who had successfully delivered one of the great ghost stories of the 21st century. It was a box office darling, as was every sequel and spin-off that came after, with only the first Annabelle (terrible by every standard) failing to meet the franchise’s critical success.

I like to picture Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, the would-be producers behind Universal’s failed “Dark Universe”, teeming with envy as they watch Wan and co. expand their demonic tales into an oh-so-trendy cinematic universe, skillfully threading each entry together to contextualise the other. They need not envy The Nun.

The latest to join The Conjuring universe, directed by The Hallows’ Corin Hardy, pushes back even further in time, all the way to 1952 Romania, to track the origins of its titular character, officially known as the demon “Valak”, who was physically introduced as a nun (a grizzly Bonnie Aarons) in The Conjuring 2 and went on to become the film’s defining demon. It proves a necessary step in order for Wan, who handles the story along with Gary Dauberman, to circle back to the franchise’s strongest character, Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren. However, that step proves to be a shaky one as Hardy violently departs from the more traditional supernatural tone of Conjuring’s ghost story and attempts to give us an absurd, and only mildly entertaining, monster movie spliced with a period-adventure to completely overshadow what could have been the franchise’s most terrifying chapter yet.

Modern supernatural horror is defined by an openness to experimenting with choreographed scares. James Wan and other masters of contemporary supernatural-horror have a keen sense of audience expectations and obviously enjoy weaponising that, knowing that what the viewer imagines will happen is far more terrifying than what actually occurs on screen, so that when the jump does hit, it catches everyone off-guard. I like to think of a good scare as a piece of music, with the jumps being beats set to a rhythm. With that in mind, the most successful horror directors in the modern age are experimental musicians, playing around with time signatures, shifting and subverting what a good, layered jump scare looks and sounds like. Hardy seems much too concerned with his monster-mash tone to bother with such experiments, sticking to fast-panning shots and boring, expected pops that are either densely packed into one sequence, as if the audience is running through a family-friendly haunted house, or so sparse they get lost in the atmosphere.

Granted, the atmosphere of The Nun is built remarkably well. The backwoods of Romania and the eerie graveyard surrounding the Transylvanian Carta Monastery is a fantastic setting for the haunting. And although working with an ancient gothic structure and it’s many nooks and crannies moves away from the more relatable suburban house setting, the location gives Hardy necessary breathing space to create something larger in scope.

But the scope is what is often the problem here. There is a very thin line separating the many sub-genres of horror and, as mentioned above, Hardy does the franchise an injustice when he moves into monster territory. A demon is terrifying and deeply disturbing when they quietly appear as a premonition and stare menacingly at the characters, but it only takes a few nudges, cheesy growls and sharp teeth to push them as monsters, subverting the tone we’ve come to credit to this cinematic universe. What we’re left with is a heavy reliance on jump scares that almost never land, especially when Hardy has an obligation to work in Valak’s “Marquis of Snakes” moniker; and snakes just ain’t that scary (at least in film).

Further splintering the tone is Abel Korzeniowski and his melodramatic score; hardly the scintillating, spin-tingling lift that helped the far superior Hereditary build it’s atmosphere. Korzeniowski is known for Romeo & Juliet, A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals; even though he scored Penny Dreadful for two years, he just doesn’t seem able to mesh well with a horror film.

The plot is hardly inspired either. A grumbling priest from the Vatican (Demián Bichir) is sent to investigate the suicide of a nun in aforementioned monastery. It’s similar to 1986 murder mystery The Name of the Rose, expect the culprit here is supernatural. Father Burke, said priest, brings Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) along for the ride; though she hasn’t exactly taken her vows yet, she has some kind of special god-given talent which is only hinted at briefly in the film. Throw in burly everyman Jonas Bloquet as Frenchie and you have a forgettable trio that lacks the kind of dynamism that would have worked well here. The only thing that does work here is how the plot essentially fits back in with the overarching mythology, with the final scene’s “ohhhhhhhhhhhh” moment circling back to The Conjuring and the mysterious attachment Valak has to Lorraine Warren.

Despite it’s middling efforts, there is still high-hopes for The Nun’s through-line in The Conjuring universe. Annabelle was awful, but the sequel was excellent; let’s hope the same applies here.

TWO STARS OUT OF FIVE

The Nun is in cinemas today.

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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review, an obsessive hip hop nerd, a whisky drinker, and a lover of all things travel. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter with @chrisdsingh.

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