“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to tonight's screening of ‘The Nun’. It is a prequel to ‘The Conjuring’, produced by the legendary James Wan and directed by... uh... you know what? I’ve forgotten who the director is!”
That introduction by the film's distributor, delivered to a packed cinema in Sydney at the preview of Corin Hardy’s ‘The Nun’, says a lot about the impersonal nature of franchise film-making. It was also an ill omen, a black cat crossing my path, a portent of bad luck in my immediate future.
We are living in the age of the expanded universe, when franchises don’t follow a single forward path, instead stretching outward in multiple directions like the gnarled branches of a creepy old tree. Billed as the latest spin-off of ‘The Conjuring’, ‘The Nun’ chronologically comes first and operates as a slap-dash brand extension, just like ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Annabelle: Creation’.
In 1952, a Catholic priest, Father Burke (a tuned-out Demián Bichir, ‘Alien: Covenant’), and a novice, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, ‘The Bling Ring’), are sent by the Vatican to investigate the mysterious suicide of a nun at the Cârța Monastery in southern Transylvania. It’s here that they meet a French-Canadian named Frenchie (a dodgily-accented Jonas Bloquet) before coming into conflict with an infernal nun, Valak (Bonnie Aarons, ‘Mulholland Drive’), who was first introduced in ‘The Conjuring 2’. There’s also some stuff about a guy called The Duke, the Knights Templar, portals to hell and a glass egg containing the blood of Jesus Christ.
‘The Conjuring’ universe has become a clubhouse for directors of awful (but low-budget and profitable) horror films, like John R. Leonetti (‘The Butterfly Effect 2’) and David F. Sandberg (‘Lights Out’). Corin Hardy’s debut feature was ‘The Hallow’, a tiny Irish horror film that wasn’t scary, but proved that he could deliver some grotesque special effects on the cheap. It was more of a calling card than a film, but the tasteful thickness and subtle off-white colouring of that card was impressive enough to get him ‘The Nun’ gig.
Hardy includes a few nods to superior films, like a local tavern straight out of John Landis’ ‘An American Werewolf in London’ and the fog-shrouded vibe and stylised ghouls of Christophe Gans’ ‘Silent Hill’. The shotgun-wielding Frenchie is supposed to be a shout-out to Ash from ‘The Evil Dead’, but he lacks Bruce Campbell’s easy charm. The premise of ‘The Nun’ is reminiscent of Aislinn Clarke’s more interesting ‘The Devil’s Doorway’, a recent Irish film which followed two priests who are sent to a Magdalene Laundry, a Catholic home for “troubled” young women, and end up discovering a sinister evil.
As a blunt object, a machine built to put nerves on edge and fingers over eyes, is ‘The Nun’ at least crudely effective?
In the lead-in to the film’s release, a short ad for ‘The Nun’ was removed from YouTube due to an unskippable jump scare that violated the platform's "Shocking Content" policies. The ad shows the Apple volume bar going left and right, before going to mute. After a second, the character Valak jump scares the viewer with a piercing roaring sound, sharp teeth and staring green eyes.
If you watched that ad, then you have seen every scare this 96-minute film has to offer.
On a lizard-brain level, ‘The Conjuring’ and its sequel tapped into the universal childhood fear of the dark, and some of its simplest moments – like a little girl describing a hideous, invisible thing crouched in the shadowiest corner of her bedroom - were its most effective, bolstered by skilfully executed sound design and Don Burgess’ gloomy cinematography.
When it comes to the scares, ‘The Nun’ is reliant on five tricks, repeated every few minutes, in an effort to keep the audience awake.
By comparison, ‘The Nun’ is aurally and visually ugly. Despite being filmed in Romania (a location used effectively in David Bruckner’s ‘The Ritual’) and Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, Hardy has his characters navigating a series of cramped, fog-obscured chambers. It’s like watching people running through a cheap haunted house at a carnival.
When it comes to the scares, ‘The Nun’ is reliant on five tricks, repeated every few minutes, in an effort to keep the audience awake:
1) Deafeningly loud music to signal when Valak is about to appear.
2) Nuns jumping out of nowhere and yelling “boo!”
3) Shadowy figures (usually nuns) materialising behind a character and then disappearing when the character turns around.
4) Doors that slowly creak open by themselves.
5) Nuns baring their teeth and hissing.
Around the halfway point, by the two dozenth or so such shock, the film loses all momentum as these tricks become achingly repetitive and telegraphed (the audience around me began to openly chuckle).
These movies are usually more effective during the escalation portion of the evening; by the last act, they all turn into ‘The Exorcist’ on steroids. This film is no different, bombarding the audience with lots of sound, fury, special effects and, in this case, a small army of nuns.
Corin Hardy can’t be assigned sole responsibility for this torpid mess of a film. A large portion of the blame should be shouldered by screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who also wrote ‘Annabelle’, ‘Annabelle: Creation’, and ‘It’. Dauberman either has a dry creative well or a grudge against the world - hilariously, he's making his directorial debut in 2019 with a new ‘Annabelle’ sequel. So that’s something to be excited about...
When ‘The Nun’ ended, the audience at my preview screening stumbled out of the cinema, concussed, bleary-eyed and murmuring. Some people were shocked at the lacklustre quality, others were yawning, a few offered vague apologies to the friends they had dragged along to watch it, and one or two were loudly questioning the authenticity of Frenchie’s accent.
Somewhat groggy myself, I had to wonder if ‘The Conjuring’, ‘Insidious’, and ‘Annabelle’ films couldn’t have been mashed together into one or two decent movies instead of spread thinly over what feels like a dozen poor-to-mediocre films (and counting...).