Can a sister of the cloth succeed where the son of Krypton and Tom Cruise stumbled? In Hollywood’s over-indulgence of expanded universes, the spook-iverse built around James Wan’s two Conjuring films and its demon-doll Annabelle offspring seems to be in sturdy shape: more so, surely, than the wobbly DCEU or Universal’s Dark Universe, which showed us The Mummy before laying the studio’s monsters to seeming rest again.
Yet Conjuring adherents might find their faith stretched by this rickety ghost-train outing for the googly-eyed Valak (Bonnie Aarons), the noisy nun who glared and roared through The Conjuring 2 and Annabelle: Creation like the It movie’s similarly toothy Pennywise with a more veiled sense of humour. Despite a superlatively atmospheric setting, director Corin Hardy is saddled with an increasingly shocking (not in a good way) script, stretched out over a plot that runs thinner than the skin on a three-week-old corpse.
Something of Event Horizon haunts the set-up and its torrid treatment, as an unlikely trio visits a sprawling Romanian abbey in 1952 to ask: is something unholy afoot here? You’d think the answer obvious, given the discovery of a seemingly suicidal nun’s body and the Omen-on-steroids army of crows about the joint. “There is some powerful evil presence in this place,” mutters Father Anthony Burke (a solid-form Demián Bichir), stating the obvious after a snake-spewing demon child has attacked him and a decidedly dead nun has proved more mobile than she ought to be.
Joining Burke is Sister Irene, played by an understated Taissa Farmiga in a link (intended or not) to the Conjurings - Taissa’s big sis Vera plays Lorraine Warren in The Nun’s bigger, better cine-siblings. Though Irene has yet to take her vows, she’s chosen by the Vatican to accompany Burke on the basis of her visions, not for the fleeting burst of humour she shows when amusing a class of kids in her introductory scene. The attempts at humour here are painfully provided by a lost-looking Jonas Bloquet as Frenchie, the local aide whose roles include making inappropriate passes at Irene, asking the questions viewers need answering and – when he’s scared - sloping off to the pub in a nearby village; a setting that might have been more effectively used to counterpoint the cloister-phobic central action.
As it is, a mismatch of humour, horror and heavy info-drops becomes pronounced as the “holy shit” hits the fan, none of which would necessarily have been fatal had the scares been up to snuff. In his favour, Hardy goes some way towards redeeming The Nun with his and DoP Maxime Alexandre’s navigation of the environment. The abbey is an ominous presence, from its sprawling, isolated domination of the landscape to its whispering corridors, deep-chill stonework and ill-met-by-gaslight shadows; the shadowy forest surrounds, meanwhile, recall the woodsy tug of Hardy’s superior debut, The Hallow.
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But The Nun lacks the confidence to let the location and mood speak, let alone whisper for themselves. The prologue lays the Catholic accoutrements on thick, piling up more upturned crucifixes than a street-load of the house in The Conjuring 2. As for the excess of dry ice, old goths might be forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled into a Sisters of Mercy concert circa 1985 by accident.
When our trio of demon-hunters arrive at the abbey to root out the source of all evil, no trick is left unturned. Hanging nuns suddenly attack; mirrors shatter; giant crucifixes tumble; shadows move; corpses weep tears; veiled figures speak in crumbling voices. After a comparably stealthy stretch of scene-setting, it’s all too much, too fast, too little developed. At one point, Burke recollects a tragic encounter with a possessed boy that saddles his character with hints of guilt; but it’s a point left under-explored, beyond an exorcism involving lots of rattling pots ’n’ pans. Elsewhere, a key character is buried alive – only to be swiftly rescued minutes later, depriving the dread of slow-burn suspense.
At a pinch, you might argue that Hardy and writer Gary Dauberman (It, Wolves at the Door, both Annabelles) are aiming for a kind of destabilisation of audience certainty, where the lines blur between reality/nightmare and life/death. But it’s a position that proves tough to sustain as the climax devolves into a silly deluge of shouty demonic dust-ups and shoot-y guns, as if Stephen Sommers’ misbegotten Mummy movies had just started to haunt Hardy’s otherwise horror-focused emphasis.
“There’s a time for prayer and a time for action,” someone says, yet the climax plumps for both without putting in the spadework (spade-based takedown of a demon aside) to establish the genre merger. Instead, the violence and volume are ramped up until both plot and abbey are left crumbling. Next to 2018’s subtler, more innovative horror high-rankers, the delivery creaks. And a nifty final twist isn’t enough to secure salvation by association with the flawed yet still superior films in Wan’s universe.
- Release date: September 6, 2018 (UK)/September 7, 2018 (US)
- Certificate: 15 (UK)/R (US)
- Running time: 96 mins