The Nun is the fifth installment in the ever-expanding James Wan Conjuring Universe, which started in 2013 with the original The Conjuring, continued with The Conjuring 2 three years later, and has also incorporated a couple sidequels/prequels about the creepy doll Annabelle. The Nun takes its cue from the second Conjuring entry, in which the eerie title specter menaced the married paranormal investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, and did such a good job of it that director and producer James Wan and New Line Cinema offered her a film of her own.
It’s a pity then that The Nun is pretty much a failure, especially since it comes armed with regular Conjuring Universe screenwriter Gary Dauberman (who has also adapted both It and its upcoming second chapter) and two solid actors in Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story) and Demian Bichir (Alien: Covenant). Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) also gets the atmosphere and setting right: taking place at a remote, isolated Romanian abbey in 1952, the film puffs out enough billowing fog to fill up a dozen Hammer movies and the abbey itself is a unnerving maze of twisting corridors and rooms filled with rotting relics. But what happens within those dank walls isn’t the least bit interesting.
Bichir and Farmiga play a Catholic priest and a novitiate sent to investigate the suicide of a young nun at the abbey; Bichir’s Father Burke is haunted by memories of the ghost boy from The Devil’s Backbone (glad to see him get some more work), while Farmiga’s Sister Irene is just haunted for reasons. Dropped off the abbey by local bruh/potential Farmiga love interest Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet from Elle), Burke and Irene have barely checked the bead count on their rosaries before the supernatural party starts. But we knew that was going to happen because before they even got there, we saw the poor dead nun hang herself out a window before The Nun could get her claws into her.
It turns out that that the abbey sits atop a gateway to hell, The Nun is a demonic entity, and she must possess a human soul in order to escape. We learn all this from Sisters Exposition and Explanation, who show up from time to time to deliver huge chunks of the story to a dazed-looking Farmiga and Bichir. Dauberman and Hardy use this thinnest of plots as a clothesline to string along a series of scenes, shots, and jump scares we’ve seen in way too many other movies, including most of the ones that producer Wan himself previously directed. Hardy’s favorites seem to be hands bursting through doors and/or walls, not to mention the famous Camera Pans Away from the Actor and Pans Back to Reveal a Demonic Face Leering Over His/Her Shoulder.
Look, The Conjuring and its sequel are both terrific horror movies (The Conjuring 2 is a near classic, if you ask me), but this is the third spinoff that has proven to be hit or miss. It seems that Wan and company just loved The Nun so much that they wanted to build a movie around her, but really had no idea where to take it once they got to the abbey. Everything in the movie, save Farmiga and Bichir (who do the best they can), is generic and ultimately forgettable. It’s certainly not scary, and the family dynamic that made the characters in the earlier films somewhat empathetic is missing here. Burke and Irene are paper thin, Frenchie is on hand for some tonally jarring comic relief, and we see far too much of The Nun — early and often — to allow her to be a truly frightening presence.
Just in case you forgot, we do see Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in framing sequences to remind us that this is a Conjuring movie, but those bits are rushed and haphazard and look like they were done in reshoots. They also remind us that the mothership films in this series are much better. But while we may pine for The Conjuring 3, we’ll have to make due for now with The Nun, which could use a few more of the already considerable prayers uttered in the movie to help fix it. And if no one answers that call, well, we hear that The Crooked Man is in the development pipeline next.
The Nun is out in theaters this Friday (Sept. 7).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye