REVIEW: Conjuringverse Turns Downright Derivative, and Painfully Silly in “The Nun”

  • nBy Joe Hammerschmidt

When a major film release timed to suddenly propel audiences into the beginnings of a brand new season rolls out an extremely vague marketing campaign with one mere trailer, and a handful of commercials only illustrating its purest of eye candy moments, two potential reasons come to mind. The hype is justified and it’s a satisfying blockbuster, ala last year’s adap of Stephen King’s IT, or a studio is trying to hide the flaws of a mediocre product. The Nun, entry number five in the Conjuring series, and its second spinoff/origin story hybrid is the textbook example of an ashamedly weak film buried under promising, yet misleading, and oftentimes controversial marketing. When a film’s second trailer gets pulled by Youtube for being too graphic or scary, then clearly something’s gone awry, specifically its commitment to a story that’s not derivative of far superior works, and can keep itself serious. And while this convent based horror can bear a few silly moments, including one quite notable it almost turns into a prevalent running gag, they serve as nothing more than an awkward distraction from what matters more, the silent fight of a demonic plague before it runs rampant across Europe.

Much like Annabelle and its unnecessary prequel late last summer were to the first Conjuring, Corin Hardy’s The Nun is the rather expected spinoff to Conjuring 2 that many of us will likely have deemed unnecessary well before entering the theater. It plays as well as one would expect, obviously unable to live up to the strengths of its mothership predecessor. The title character, a prophetic nun with no real name but plenty of baggage (Bonnie Arons), had been the object of Lorraine Warren’s obsession. 20 years prior at a quiet convent in the heart of Romania, she lays havoc on its denizens, her demonic spirit looking for nothing more than a living soul to respite.

When an apparent suicide rocks their community, of course the Vatican is appointed to investigate. Enter Father Burke (Demián Bechir), an experienced priest; Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s younger sibling), a head-over-shoulders novitiate awaiting her consecration; and Frenchy (Jonas Bloquet), a local delivery boy who just happened to witness the suicide. The trio team up to determine the cause of the incident, but wind up with more than they had bargained for. Their unlikely target evolves into the possessed nun, a conduit for the jaded spirit of a demon named Valac, who takes on an overly different tangent unfamiliar to those aware of the creature’s prior mythology; the ability to summon serpents notwithstanding.

English-born Hardy, who previously made a significant ripple with his debut film, 2015 Sundance smash The Hallow rises firmly into the director’s seat of his first major Hollywood picture, and hopefully not his last. Even without having seen his first feature, it’s easy to see just how fond he is of pure darkness, of delivering a fright at its most minimalist, determined to have the most fun possible with his work. Yet even that can’t be enough to keep his efforts from digging a slightly deeper grave. Gary Dauberman, scribe for both Annabelle installments, manages to lose focus in creating a worthwhile story that could’ve been more than just buildup to jump scares. A weak plot setting up a few very tense moments which, yes, even got me going, nearly screaming from the back row. I ought’ve seen them coming, but I didn’t. Plenty of shocking surprises with those jumps, but all still empty calories.

Despite the hiccups, Miss Arons, an established character actress accomplishes the oft-impossible, portraying her title role in a way unlike what would appear as a small one-note figurehead. Granted, it’s all very physically driven; yet the way her presence envelops a room is exactly what’s needed to build a chill, and kick up all the rear surround speakers (which have been ignored many a time by the non-tentpole films this year). Our hero trio, regrettably, are not as balanced a match against such a radical villainess. Farmiga and Bechir, at the very least, stay true to staying scared, even when the fright factor can’t hold to an even keel.

And whether both would play a larger role in an eventual sequel where both Farmiga sisters would unite to squash the same demonic threat in the early 70’s, that does remain to be seen, but one would hope they do. The scenes with Belgian-born Bloquet, last seen by American audiences through a small part in Valerian, they’re probably the silliest. Perhaps, almost to the point where one may question why he’s not been labeled the true comic relief in a film where humorous beats wouldn’t even come warranted.

It could be because of the apparent masking of noted derivation, motifs which remind us we could be watching a deep-seeded horror classic instead of a rather watered-down knockoff. All the Conjuring films work on the same ideal, that they bear a great amount of originality, but can’t help lovingly ripping off other works, and The Nun is no different. Had it tried to prove to me how more original it could be, and make their lead characters a bit less rooted in make-believe horror, I’d have enjoyed it a little more. Its authenticity between actors, and that of the scenery having actually shot in and around Romania, does assist a tiny amount to ensure horror flick legitimacy, that this would be a film I could see myself coming back to on occasion, though not as much as its mothership entries. That leads me to wonder what possibilities would be on hand with a second film, or even better, a third Conjuring that can tie up all the loose ends Nun leaves behind. Whatever it is, that’s the thing that could make it a small victory in its own right the same way IT was last September, that it leaves the audience itching for more of the same world, while possibly outdoing what was already built, with a very good nature around it. It’s all very much within reach, and always worth attempting. (C-)

The Nun is in most area theaters today, Friday 9/7; rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images; 96 minutes.