Corin Hardy’s ‘The Nun’ has plenty of shameless jump scares to cure your hiccups and that’s just it.
To sum up The Nun viewing experience in one scene, it would be that part where a character walks through a forest in the middle of the night when suddenly – baaam! – a hanging nun corpse drops in front of his face. It’s that brand of in-your-face, haunted house jumpscare that makes you want to walk out of it. Nevermind that it’s predictable, this poor viewer here who’s not been bred for the horror genre gets scared with almost every trick. Factor in the sudden blasts from a Dolby cinema, it’s definitely a high in my fright-o-meter. Now as for the ‘darkest chapter’ that the film claims it to be, unfortunately this is the first one I’ve seen in The Conjuring universe, so I have no benchmark for that.
Set in 1952, Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a priest with a dark past, and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a nun in training, are instructed by the Vatican to investigate the apparent suicide of a nun in Romania. From the get-go, the film does a good job in making you feel that you are being ushered into a horror house, or in this case, a haunted monastery. Decrepit structures, mounted crucifixes, occasional cawing crows – the place has an immersive, gothic vibe into it. The pair, assisted by a French-Canadian farmer Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), are all oblivious to the suggestion that a malevolent force has taken over the forsaken place.
As soon as the night falls, the film separates these players and proceeds on its hijinks, courtesy of a demon nun named Valak the Defiler (Bonnie Aarons). The film adheres to this pattern – lure the characters outside their rooms (make sure they’re gullible enough to go in susceptible places like basements), drop the jump scare, then let Valak ambush them, if they’re lucky they might survive. Afterwards, repeat this formula a couple more times. Personally, I’m not a fan with the overuse of such technique – I prefer the story being built up over a succession of meaningless thrills. Looking at this film’s commercial success, however, I am definitely in the minority with this.
Here’s the thing, jump scares aren’t necessarily scary, they’re more startling and temporary. Some of the scaring methods here are not entirely new (shadowy figures in candle-lit hallways, mirror apparitions and rotating crucifixes) while some rely on graphic content (heaps of blood, moving decayed corpses and serpents coming out from mouths). Nonetheless, Director Corin Hardy makes them look inspired using practical effects and precision framing, along with the help of a creaky sound design. An overhead shot of sister Irene, clad in white, surrounded by black nuns, comes as a standout.
Lush production and stunning art direction can only momentarily distract you from a slow and thin narrative. The abundance of jump scares and the lack of character development through interaction does not give you enough emotional attachment to root for them. Father Burke has an interesting backstory squeezed along the way – except you don’t really care about it. Farmiga has all the wide eyes and sweet demeanor to be a relatable protagonist, but with a script that misses the opportunity to question her own faith, her personality comes out as stiff. It is Bloquet who gets to be memorable with his quips and charm despite being a plot device. In one hilarious scene, he rips off a crucifix from a graveyard, in the hopes of warding off an evil spirit.
As for the origin story, Valak’s image does sear into one’s head but she (or is it a he?) fails to come out as a character. I was expecting some backstory of her being a human, then for some reason, she’s condemned to be a demon that haunts the monastery for life. But in here, the film essentially gives nothing of her, apart from being an evil entity that takes on several forms – with the high cheekbone Nun as her penchant. This is a film about ‘the nun’, starring ‘the nun.’ I guess I’ll be better off making up a story in my head.
The Nun is a self-contained prequel that you can watch without having seen any of The Conjuring films. It’s filled with fleeting thrills – the scary images come at you loud and fast – but it lacks of a horror story that truly resonates and imprints to the core. The leaps of logic towards the end does not help. As my entry point of the franchise, does this entice me to watch the rest of it? Not really.
2.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Corin Hardy, screenplay by Gary Dauberman from a story written by James Wan and Gary Dauberman
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Demián Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Jonny Coyne, Mark Steger, Sandra Teles, Manuela Ciucur, Ani Sava
Run time: 96 minutes