‘The Nun’ is a disappointment that I don’t completely hate

Day 06-00572.dng

I’m kind of baffled that The Nun isn’t a better movie. Going in, it was among my most anticipated films of the fall, and as a hardcore fan of The Conjuring, the trailers had assuaged any fears I had about this being an unnecessary prequel. That trailer absolutely killed in every theater I ever saw it play in, so my hype was through the roof for this thing. Sadly, the film turned out to be a big disappointment, although not a completely soul-crushing one in the vein of The MummyThe Nun isn’t a disaster; it still has a lot going for it, but it’s just clearly not great and quite obviously a major stumble for the Conjuring universe.

To me, the reason comes down to one word: repetitive, not a word I usually associate with the Conjuring films. One thing James Wan is great at (among many others) is constantly presenting us with new and inventive horror setpieces throughout his films so that even if the basic template is familiar, we always feel we’re seeing something new and unexpected. He doesn’t just have a mom wander around a dark spooky house; he has her wander around playing a game of “hide and clap,” culminating in a pair of hands emerging from the darkness. This is the case even in the Conjuring films Wan doesn’t direct; think about all the memorable and unique setpieces in the Annabelle movies, like the elevator scene in the original film or the toy gun scene in Creation.

But in The Nun, inventiveness never comes into the equation, and virtually every single setpiece is precisely what you would expect to see in a movie like this, and the exact same as the one that came before. I can only really think of one moment that I thought was particularly clever or in which director Corin Hardy tried to do anything even remotely above and beyond. But otherwise, it’s mostly just people walking down dark hallways as the camera pans to reveal Valek standing behind them. Then Valek does something scary and disappears – rinse and repeat. It’s that big scare from the end of the film’s trailer over and over again.

Looking back on the whole Conjuring universe, so many individual moments come to mind. But now, looking back on The Nun less than 24 hours after I saw it, I’m already forgetting almost all of the scares. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean none of them worked in the moment, which is why I don’t think this is a horrible film. But we’ve come to expect so much more from a Conjuring installment than just 90 minutes of some mildly effective but totally generic frights that quickly fade from memory after the credits roll.

Unfortunately, nothing in The Nun comes even remotely close to being as effective as any given scene featuring the very same character in The Conjuring 2, especially not that phenomenal painting sequence. Now that was something novel; I’ve never seen a movie terrify the audience by turning down the lights and making us unsure whether we’re looking at a painting or a real creature. What a clever idea that was. There’s not one moment in The Nun where we haven’t seen something exactly like it before, which is a bummer since part of what defines the Conjuring series is new, imaginative scares presented in an old school framework.

I’ve seen some reviewers take issue with the fact that The Nun explains too much about Valek, thus making the creature a lot less scary. But I didn’t find that to be a problem. Really, we don’t learn a whole lot more about it in this film than we did in The Conjuring 2; long story short, it’s just a freaky demon that needs to be sent back to hell, although this film does offer a different explanation for why it appears in the form of a nun than The Conjuring 2 did.

But there’s a different reason The Nun kind of makes Valek less scary. In The Conjuring 2, the demon nun is terrifying partially because it’s so out of place. The scariest shot in that entire film, in my opinion, is the cut to Valek standing completely still at the end of a hallway in the Warrens’ home. Here we have a quaint little house where Lorraine and her daughter are casually hanging out, and suddenly thrust into it is…this thing. I would even be scared if it was just a regular nun because of how dichotomous the visual is with its surroundings.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 10.49.41 AM

The Nun, in contrast, takes place in a spooky, foggy castle filled with nuns, and so it’s never quite as unnerving whenever Valek pops up. It’s like, yeah, okay, that thing does seem like something that belongs in this environment. The movie suggests that Valek is actually appearing as a nun in order to blend in, and that’s sort of the problem. It was scary in The Conjuring 2 entirely because it so aggressively didn’t blend in.

As others have pointed out, the movie is also really weirdly paced, with one of the most intense things that ever happens in it occurring near the very beginning. After it goes down, it’s pretty baffling that a lot of the activity going forward is actually less intense, not to mention the fact that the characters don’t immediately run for the hills afterward.

Outside of the scares, the movie definitely needed some tightening up in a few other places, one of which is the editing. Scenes are just really weirdly paced, especially in the opening act; we get the sense that there was probably a lot more there originally, but there was some studio mandate to chop the final edit down to 90 minutes. Even the music will sometimes be weirdly cut; I recall one specific moment during a flashback where the score appeared to suddenly jump up as if a scene before it was removed and the music placement wasn’t adjusted at all. In subtle ways, the whole movie just gives off the feeling that something went slightly wrong behind the scenes within the final stretch of production; we can practically hear the arguments in the edit bay while we’re in the theater.

This all sounds pretty negative, but I didn’t really hate The Nun. I’ve seen way worse horror movies this year (Insidious: The Last Key comes to mind). There’s a lot to like, including Taissa Farmiga and Demián Bichir’s performances. I enjoyed both of those characters, and I appreciate that the movie keeps up the series’ optimism and themes of faith and spirituality. Some of the dialogue is surprisingly bad considering this is written by the same guy who wrote the fabulous Annabelle: Creation, but everyone does their best. Even Jonas Bloquet isn’t terrible as Frenchie even though his character does not need to be in the movie at all. Why does a film about an evil demon nun need so much comedic relief? The visuals of The Nun are also superb; I appreciate Hardy’s desire to create sort of a modern-day Hammer film, and he does fill the movie with a consistently creepy vibe. Plot-wise, I also like where this movie goes and what it reveals about the nature of the abbey. If I just read the Wikipedia summary of the film, I would think it sounded great, but it sadly just doesn’t quite come together on the screen.

Seeing as The Nun is the first major stumble in the Conjuring universe so far (at least in my opinion, as I’m in the minority that really enjoyed the first Annabelle), I do have to wonder what lessons should be taken from this that can be applied to future installments. In a lot of ways, I think the movie’s failure is very specific and doesn’t necessarily portend anything disastrous going forward, especially since Annabelle: Creation proved that a prequel focused on a character from the main Conjuring movies, which James Wann isn’t involved in, can be great.

But one lesson is that Wan and company should think a lot harder about which characters from the main films actually deserve spin-offs, not just instinctively greenlighting movies about whatever antagonists became break-outs. Annabelle worked for standalone movies because a) she was not the primary antagonist in The Conjuring, leaving us wanting to see more and b) since she doesn’t actually move around and is instead just a conduit for evil, there was plenty of room for a variety of different scares.

Valek, on the other hand, was already the main antagonist of The Conjuring 2, a movie in which Wan wisely used the character sparingly because it really doesn’t do a whole lot other than stand there and occasionally lunge at people. So perhaps a spin-off about Valek was always going to create for some cool-looking trailers but a disappointing movie overall, and in the future, the Conjuring spin-offs should be focused on characters that really deserve a spotlight on them. Canceling that Crooked Man movie might be wise.

There’s one last point I’d like to make, but it’ll require SPOILERS, so stop reading if you have not seen the movie yet.

I really think it’s time the Conjuring universe spin-offs stop trying so hard to tie into the other films. The way I’d personally love for this shared universe to work is that you can approach any of them completely on their own — you can go see The Nun just because you’re into the idea of an evil nun movie without having seen the others — and they work, but there are still some small tie-ins and Easter Eggs for the hardcore fans who watch them all. Instead, the ending of The Nun would completely fall flat for anyone who hasn’t seen the first Conjuring and would have them leaving the theater on a sour, confused note.

If anything, you’d think it’s The Conjuring 2 you’d need to watch first since that’s the one Valek is actually in, but no, The Nun uses an incredibly minor scene in the first Conjuring as its big punchline. So basically, the filmmakers are establishing that it’s necessary to watch every single Conjuring film or you’re going to be left out of some key moments even in the seemingly standalone spin-offs, and as much as that’s somewhat appealing to me as a hardcore fan of the series, I worry that it might be off-putting to more casual audiences.

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