A priest, a nun, and a Frenchman walk into a castle. It sounds like the set-up for a bad joke; sadly, it’s the premise of the weakest entry yet in the Conjuring Cinematic Universe. With its vision of a cloistered abbey fallen under diabolical corruption, The Nun is an apt horror movie during a time of crisis in the church. Unfortunately, the producers of this usually reliable franchise have begun to lose sight of their calling.
Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate who has yet to take her vows as a nun, journey to a cloistered abbey in Romania on assignment from the Vatican. One of the resident sisters has committed the grave sin of suicide, and with the help of a farmer (Jonas Bloquet) who found the nun’s body hanging from a castle window, the worried travelers try to get to the bottom of what happened.
Romania’s Corvin Castle is the gorgeous Gothic setting for this battle between good and evil, and it’s the most convincing character in the movie. The 15th-century structure was reportedly where Vlad the Impaler was held prisoner, and such colorful history has made it a ripe location for various paranormal investigations as well as the 2007 Nicolas Cage vehicle Ghost Rider. Dressed in CGI decay, it front-loads The Nun with plenty of ominous atmosphere.
But screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who penned both Annabelle movies, doesn’t develop these characters beyond stock types. What’s worse, one of those types is mere comic relief. A show of hands: how many people think it was a good idea to add a rustic named “Frenchie” to this supernatural troupe? “I’m French-Canadian,” he clarifies at a climactic moment, and although we finally learn that this character ties in with the rest of the series, that doesn’t make him feel like any more of a real person.
Farmiga’s nun-in-waiting echoes big-sister Vera’s struggle in the other films, and her baby face suits the role of the steadfast innocent. Bichir, on the other hand, has a thick accent that’s completely incongruous with his Irish surname, which helps give The Nun the air of ‘70s Italian B-horror (while nowhere idiosyncratic enough to evoke giallo).
The two Conjuring movies spent enough time with its characters so you’d be invested in their conflict, and that tradition continued with the patient backstory of Annabelle. But under the guidance of director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), Annabelle: Creation. relied too much on jump scares.
With The Nun, director Corin Hardy manages some of the moodiness he brought to his feature debut the The Hallow, and the movie generates a moderate charge out of the abbey’s descent into evil. But this series that started so well has become less inspired. While this ship may still be set right with The Conjuring 3, another spin-off, The Crooked Man, does not seem so promising.
The expanding Conjuring Cinematic Universe began as a reliable sanctuary for anyone who wants their horror movies dashed with character development and graceful camerawork on top of unsettling fear. Yet The Nun, despite great sets and evocative visuals, threatens to make one lose faith in the series.
A couple of announcements:
I’ve stopped running my weekly movie column here since it got picked up by The DCLine. Get your local art-house and rep news over there!
And just last week I became an official Tomatometer-approved critic, so I’m going to start reviewing movies here to supplement the usual outlets. You can see all my reviews, more than 500 written since 2011 (as a side-gig, I might add!) here.