When a nun commits suicide in a monastery, a priest and a young nun are sent by the Vatican to determine whether an unholy presence is responsible.
1 hour, 36 minutes
September 7, 2018
Director: Corin Hardy
Writers: Gary Dauberman (screenplay) & James Wan (story)
Composer: Abel Korzeniowski
Starring: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
While this will be the fifth film to be released in Warner Bros.’ burgeoning Conjuring universe, The Nun has the current honor of sitting in first place when it comes to the chronological order of this franchise’s ever-expanding narrative. Set in 1952, three years before the events of Annabelle: Creation, The Nun will finally reveal the origins of Valak.
The demonic character made its first appearance in the franchise in The Conjuring 2, though while it was only a cameo, the sequence terrified audiences and fed their desire to learn more about the mysterious nun. With yet another cameo in Annabelle: Creation, expectations have run high, with fans baying for answers as compensation for being teased by the filmmakers for so long. Will The Nun provide the payoff that fans desire?
Violence/Scary Images: The Nun is a horror film and therefore aims to terrify its audience through violence and scary imagery. There are stabbings, mutilations of the flesh, and bleeding wounds (not an excessive amount of gore–realistic given the injury). Characters are frequently grabbed from behind by a mysterious figure that lurks amongst the shadows. Corpses are shown, with some reanimating. This film centers around a demonic entity, which defiles religious artifacts; turns crucifixes upside-down, destroys effigies of Jesus, and burns when touched by holy items.
A nun commits suicide by hanging herself–her rotting corpse is later seen falling apart and being eaten by wildlife. Supernatural figures are shot at. Characters are seen being choked and tossed multiple times. A character is buried alive. There are several moments throughout the film where gross things come out of people’s mouths: snakes, spitting another’s blood. Foreign objects are seen under a character’s skin. Demonic possession occurs, along with ghostly interactions and moments of reality bending.
Language/Crude Humor: The s-word is said once. There are many religious exclamations (“Oh God, Jesus”, etc), though most utterances would be considered in context and not to be using His name in vain.
Drug/Alcohol References: There is a scene set in a tavern where wine and beer are consumed responsibly.
Sexual Content: Some flirting between a man and a young nun.
Spiritual Content: Catholicism is heavily represented; the film is set in a monastery, with most of the characters being nuns. The process of becoming a Sister is discussed repeatedly. The Vatican sends a priest with experience in exorcisms to determine whether holy grounds have been defiled by demonic activity. Prayer is used heavily to keep a demon at bay. There is a lot of spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness, with the literal blood of Christ playing a crucial role in that battle. There is also a brief flashback featuring occult worship and Christian knights. Valak is the demonic antagonist–some of the movie’s lore is taken from the Lesser Key of Solomon and other grimoires on demonology.
Other Negative Content: There is a sign at the beginning of a passageway that says “God Ends Here.” While its presence could be argued within the context of the film, it also unintentionally suggests that God does not have power in certain areas. The demon, Valak, is arguably too strong given the preparedness of his Christ-affirming adversaries.
Positive Content: The movie features some great symbolism regarding Christ’s victory over evil. There is a brief conversation regarding the Bible and how it’s “God’s love letter to us.” No longer able to deny its presence, all the characters bravely decide that it is best to confront the demon, not tolerating the idea of its influence stretching further into the world.
If The Conjuring was like a breath of fresh air for the horror genre, then The Nun is the follow-up belch that stank up the room. The beauty of this type of cinema is that it always needs to be seeking something new in order to keep audiences terrified of the unknown. Unfortunately, The Nun relies on the same scare tactics that have been used in the previous films of this franchise. It may feature a different cast of characters and addresses the pressure to double down on portraying the “big bad” of the series, but with uninspired scenes always relying on obvious jump scares, The Nun feels stale when it should have pushed the narrative into a new direction.
Normally I like to praise a film first before criticizing it, but to be honest, there’s not much to really love about The Nun. There are certainly worse horror films out there–The Nun is competent in a few areas, making it middle-of-the-road in terms of quality. Essentially, it’s certainly not total hot garbage, but it’s still a disappointing film given the caliber of the movies that preceded it (Annabelle excluded).
It’s disappointing because The Conjuring franchise has in the past delivered some of the most creatively suspenseful scares in the haunted house sub-genre. One of the most memorable was in The Conjuring 2 featuring Valak, the villain of The Nun. Yes, I’m talking about that painting scene! It was so simple yet so effective. A light would turn off. A character would be distracted. It cheekily toyed with the audience’s eyesight, as onlookers would struggle to determine what exactly they were seeing in darkness. Then there was that long creeping shadow… Just one creepy beat after another that built up the tension until it finally unleashed itself. A masterclass of suspenseful horror.
Valak’s introduction to the series left a mark on cinema history, so it’s such a shame that nothing in the entire film devoted to his character even comes close to that level of technical expertise. Every scary scene plays out the same way. The hero hears a noise. The camera pans away. Can you guess what happens when the camera pans back? We don’t feel that grip of fear, empathizing with the hero as they tread down a dark corridor. Instead, we look on, awash with boredom, almost wishing a sadistic turn of events just so we can experience at least some level of excitement. But no. Every pan results in a jump scare. Every. Single. One. Jump scares work best when it’s unexpected, which is ultimately why The Nun is a failure of a horror film. It’s devoid of creativity, which is sadly unbecoming on the Conjuring franchise.
However, there is one scene that breaks away from this predictable scare pattern. It involves a coffin, and judging from the reactions on the Internet, it has become The Nun’s most iconic scene… though for all the wrong reasons. Tired horror tropes need a twist to feel fresh, however, the genre has a lot of established rules for a reason. Some just can’t be broken, at least not without a good excuse. In haunted house-type flicks, when the heroes stay the first night, it typically involves them getting a bit rattled by bumps and knocks, establishing the problems that need to be overcome. It’s usually the second (or third) night where we see the full extent of the antagonist’s power.
The Nun’s coffin scene made the mistake of peaking the film too early. Instead of creepy noises and clever scary sequences that normally occur on the first night in a horror film, audiences were treated to the full appearance of an apparition, coupled with teleportation and the bending of reality; higher-tiered powers that are usually reserved for the finale. The sequence, therefore, feels outlandish because it didn’t build up to it, dialing it “straight to eleven” as one would say.
I honestly believed it was a dream sequence or premonition until the film confirmed a few minutes later that, no, that did actually just happen. What’s more, the coffin scene makes no sense in regards to Valak’s motives. It’s clear the writers simply wanted to portray the demon’s brute force, to demonstrate that he’s no pushover, yet it came at the expense of the story’s integrity. Instead of scaring audiences, it just confused them, snapping their suspension of disbelief.
The Nun’s narrative is one filled with missed potential. There are three protagonists, each one internally struggling with a personal problem. The film addresses each in turn, but their character arcs are never fully realized, as the story never perfectly blends Valak’s mayhem with the hero’s need to face their demons. It’s a disjointed narrative as a result; four main characters and therefore four separate stories, which are only connected out of the protagonists’ sense of duty. Backstories are merely treated as an interlude to Valak’s lame jump scares, as opposed to enriching or connecting the film’s threads to a singular moral tale.
The movie’s greatest crime is that it doesn’t properly harness what makes it unique compared to the other films in the franchise. For once the protagonists aren’t young families or little girls. Father Burke is an experienced (albeit failed) exorcist that has been sent by The Vatican, whereas Sister Irene is a gifted follower of Christ, on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun. So unlike the previous films, the protagonists are already aware that demons exist. It can dive right in, delving deep into Christian theology, without having to apologize along the way, as the film’s title should strongly suggest to the audience that the story will contain religious ideals.
In some ways, it achieves this. I do praise The Nun for containing some wonderful symbolism, cinematically conveying the power of prayer, along with the importance of the blood of Christ. Of course, it does get rather fanciful; there are Christian knights, gates of Hell, and Christian artifacts galore. Christianity has never been so excitingly exotic!
Yet despite all the theatrics, the film never fully grasps the nuances of spiritual warfare. In order to show that Valak can be a threat to the well-warned protagonists, he is simply portrayed as being physically stronger than them. He grows to a larger size, roars, and has the ability to throw people across the room. That’s it. That’s the depth of his character. It’s odd because when James Wan first conceived the character, he decided to have Valak appear as a nun as a way to represent the demon undermining and mocking Lorraine Warren’s faith. The Nun continues this concept of taking something holy and defiling it, but it never truly explores this to its full extent.
Unfortunately, The Nun isn’t exactly targeting a Christian audience, which is painfully obvious with the inclusion of the third and final protagonist, Frenchie. Receiving a positive reception with test audiences, Frenchie’s role was expanded, becoming the everyman figure and voice for non-Christian viewers. He cracks jokes, “nopes” out of scary situations, and takes a leaf from the Winchester brothers by bringing a gun to a demon fight (and it’s actually effective…).
His character is used to break the tension, which is necessary because if a horror film tries to be scary for its entire runtime, then audiences actually grow tired of the fear. However, his intrusions are too comical, disturbing the tone of the movie, and lightening the mood more than what is required. Scream and even the recent thriller, A Simple Favor, pull off this type of genre blending, but this simply isn’t in step with the rest of the franchise. Frenchie merely pumps the brakes on what could have been an unapologetically religious spiritual warfare film, telling the audience to not take it seriously, whilst the other two characters obviously feel opposite.
It’s none of the actors’ fault. They do a fine job with their roles. However, as gorgeous as Taissa Farmiga’s performance was as Sister Irene, it’s questionable as to whether she should have been cast. Bearing a striking resemblance to her real-life sister, Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren in the main series, casting Taissa naturally leads audiences to believe that the two characters are linked. However, this is not the case. So it seems rather thoughtless to cast Vera’s sister in an unrelated role, blocking the possibility of using Taissa to play a younger version of Lorraine in a future film. This casting choice has undoubtedly generated a lot of buzz and film theories, and if it is revealed later on that Sister Irene and Lorraine Warren are somehow related, then I retract my criticism. Yet as of right now, it seems to have been a careless choice that does nothing but cause confusion.
As with all horror films, the question is raised as to whether Christians should watch it. The demon is too powerful and it may trigger some Google search binges into occult practices, in which case this film adopts the same concerns I’ve already outlined in the reviews for Annabelle: Creation and Hereditary respectively. Yet to be blunt, The Nun really isn’t worth the conversation.
Mediocre at best, I can only recommend it to fans of the Conjuring universe, and even then, only to the completionists. The story offers little to the timeline, and in some ways undermines Lorraine’s final conflict with Valak in The Conjuring 2. As far as ranking it goes, The Conjuring, its sequel, and Annabelle: Creation are still the best in the series, with The Nun and Annabelle lagging far behind. The Nun seems to be slightly better than Annabelle, only because the latter felt more amateurish with its cinematography. The Nun can exist as a standalone, though with predictable scares and lazy character arcs, watching it is only worthwhile for hardcore fans.
+ Christian symbolism
+ It isn't as bad as Annabelle
- Predictable jump scares
- Villain peaked too early
- Shies away from going deeper into Christian theology
- Comedic moments feel intrusive
- Odd casting choice
- Characters are never fully fleshed out, particularly Valak