Film Review: The Nun

The demon nun vanquished in 'The Conjuring 2' returns for her close-up in a straightforward origin story that’s more funny than frightening.
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Introduced tormenting Vera Farmiga’s clairvoyant ghost-hunter Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring 2, the demon nun Valak (Bonnie Aarons) now follows devil doll Annabelle as the latest antagonist in the Conjuring/Annabelle horror-movie universe to be granted a standalone prequel. Although Warren and her partner in the paranormal, husband Ed (Patrick Wilson), make flickering prologue appearances, the couple are not integral to this film’s 1952-set story. Or are they?

The clairvoyant investigator in The Nun is dewy Sister Irene, a novitiate prone to alarming visions, who happens to be portrayed by Farmiga’s younger sister, Taissa. It’s unlikely, given the chronology of these films and Sister Irene’s current vocation, that she’s Lorraine’s mother. The filmmakers of some future pre/sequel might yet pull the rug out from under this film’s mythology, but for this story, credited to franchise mainstay James Wan and screenwriter Gary Dauberman, all signs point to The Nun being an origin story for the demon Valak, and for the far more heavenly of the two sisters, Irene/Lorraine Warren.

As such, the more intriguing nun definitely is Irene, drafted into the service of a supernatural investigation by Father Burke, the Vatican’s most trusted paranormal detective. Played by former Oscar nominee Demián Bichir, usually a reliable source of caring authority, Burke is haunted by his own demons, naturally, and further robbed of some authority as lead investigator by Bichir’s wan performance.

Fantasy-film actors often don’t get the credit they deserve for making extreme make-believe feel fully fleshed. Chris Hemsworth, for example, doesn’t just look the part of Marvel’s god of thunder, but he swings Thor’s hammer as if it were forged by magic, not by the props department. Bichir, certainly as capable an actor, shows a nice touch delivering half-scared comic asides, but, for the most part, he doesn’t wield Burke’s crucifixes with the called-for conviction. Consequently, the priest seems more tired than terrified, exhausted from decades spent chasing demons, performing exorcisms and serving in World War II as an army chaplain.

Burke’s determination to root out the demon nun while conquering his own ghosts should, but fails, to add urgency to his pursuit, with Sister Irene, of answers behind the spooky goings-on at a centuries-old abbey. One answer they seek is why exactly the Church established this abbey inside a sinister-looking castle nestled in the Romanian countryside. Built during the Dark Ages by an evil duke who was less interested in being closer to God than in opening a gateway to Hell, the castle, care of production designer Jennifer Spence, is an apt haunted house full of dark, dusty chambers and catacombs. However, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre lights the stony abode and surrounding environs so thoroughly that the foreboding mood frequently lapses.

Another lapse is the filmmakers’ choice to completely abandon what most kids who’ve harbored any fear of nuns find scary about them: that is, their sternness and rigidity in the face of child-like curiosity and joy. Except for one brief confrontation between Sister Irene and her Mother Superior (Lynnette Gaza) inside a classroom full of young students, The Nun resorts to makeup effects to put a frightening face on its supposedly scary sisters.

So, in the absence of dense atmosphere or genuinely frightening depictions of nuns, director Corin Hardy relies heavily on jump scares. Shadows and figures dart in and out of doors, around corners, and Sister Irene and Father Burke dutifully chase after them, sometimes assisted by a handsome and, for pitifully explained reasons, French-Canadian resident of this haunted Romanian village. He’s helpfully named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), and somehow this movie turns out to be his origin story, too.