Apparently the nun in The Conjuring series needed her own movie that calls itself The Nun. This helps form a Conjuring Cinematic Universe. Despite some low expectations, The Nun had a potential that it unfortunately squanders. Here we see a convent full of them. But the most important one in the movie is Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga). A London based novitiate, she’s the kind who actually believes in the evolutionary theory. It’s fact about her character that they shoehorn into the film’s opening scene. She also hasn’t made her vows, a fact that everyone knows.
So what is this science believing novitiate doing here? Well, her relationship with religion, science, and the supernatural are more complex. That’s interesting since she’s living the the postwar era. And all of those forces, or two of them, will clash when the Vatican assigns her with a peculiar job. The Vatican comes in the form of Father Anthony Burke (Demian Bichir). He taps her to join him to investigate a nun’s suicide in a convent in Nowhere, Romania. The Vatican also misinforms him on her knowledge of Romania but he keeps her along anyway.
Despite not knowing anything about Romania, Sister Irene becomes an asset to the trip because of her visions. These visions made her parents think she was crazy or worse, a liar. One silver lining to this disaster of a movie is its few references to wartime parenting. One of these visions also tells Sister Irene that “Mary leads the way”. That probably should be a Martha Wash song, if it wasn’t already. Father Burke then tells the story of someone who wasn’t as lucky. And both stories play into the rest of the movie, predictably.
Sister Irene is like Sister Clodagh from Black Narcissus, who gets a job that everyone thinks doesn’t suit her. Or maybe it does. Here’s another similarity to the Powell and Pressburger movie. Sister Irene and Father Burke also get a smart aleck-y guide in the form of Frenchie (Jonas Blquet). A meta film like this could provide enjoyment to audiences but only to a certain extent. There are even nods that horror fans will notice more than the average person who sees a movie a week. If that. Nonetheless, the film relies too heavily on those references.
Sister Irene, Father Burke, and Frenchie don’t have a lot of scenes together. However the dynamic among them eventually breaks the film. Father Burke, has an Oscar nominee who knows usually his way around genre films. But he’s a non entity here. Although wearing his scars on his sleeves make for a contrast with Sister Irene. She is the embodiment of a sincerity that audiences laugh at. Known for playing angsty girls, Farmiga almost sells that if not for Frenchie’s one liners. And if it wasn’t for the movie in general sandbagging her.
The fight between sincerity and cynicism makes this film as a strange into The Conjuring universe. That film combined found footage with period touches, while this one is pure Gothic. Crumbling castles and churches, etc. If only it showed that off properly. Most of the scenes take place at night in a place that finds itself having Medieval technology. Someone worked hard to make those sets look real only for someone to light them badly. Unless of course, they didn’t and it needed darkness to sell whatever it is they’re trying and failing to sell.
The darkness plays into the movie’s setting, which again, reminds me of the Get Out edict that everyone apparently forgot. Frenchie is smartly reluctant to explore the convent but that doesn’t deter Sister Irene and Father Burke. Why are they going into dark places? Why do they not relight the candles that the evil nun is trying to blow out? And why don’t they always carry matches, or disregard a perfectly working flashlight? Can’t all of this exploration to follow ghosts wait until the morning. Well, one scenario can’t but the rest are total write-offs.
Its dark cinematography isn’t its only flaw. This also doesn’t have a lot of scares. And just like other recent horrors and thrillers, it makes its audiences wait for a scare that doesn’t pay off. This movie isn’t smart enough to be a part of the ‘no scare’ horror genre. The only people who worked hard here are the sound designers. They added screeching noises to the movie that envelope screening rooms and would have unnerved latecomers. Too bad that the great work in sound design doesn’t match the unfortunate way that the movie looks.
The first movie The Conjuring was a straight up horror. Meanwhile, its sequel is a sappy political love story under the guise of horror. James Wan roots all of those in specific periods while this prequel, despite its 1952 setting, mashes up history. This is Romania after all, home to Dracula, and it flashes back to how that mythology seeps into this one. There are also monsters just like the ones in 1950s horror. And sure, the past haunts the present, yadda. But in helming this feature, Corin Hardy’s use of time makes it feel groundless.
There’s some great supporting work from Toni Erdmann‘s Ingrid Bisu. She plays Sister Oana the only nun in the convent who dares to talk to Irene. Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) also show up in the movie’s epilogue. The movie then retcons a character in The Nun into their misadventures. There’s even a possibility that the movie would reference Taissa and Vera’s relationship as real life siblings and lookalikes. But these cameos won’t save the movie. And it’s disappointing to think that the filmmakers thought that that would be the case.