Film Review: ‘The Nun’ Is a Bad Presence for the Wrong Reasons

No doubt trying to recapture last year’s surprise success with their release of “It,” Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema chose the same weekend one year later to unleash another horror entry, “The Nun.”

The newest addition to James Wan‘s “The Conjuring” franchise provides a deeper look into the back story of a mysteriously terrifying character introduced in “The Conjuring 2” in 2016. The nun in question was a dark entity that latched itself onto Lorraine Warren, playing a significant role in the Warrens’ efforts to help a mother and her children face a poltergeist in London.

Set some 20 years before Ed and Lorraine Warren visited a farmhouse in Rhode Island, “The Nun” follows a Catholic priest and a young novitiate sent by the Vatican to investigate a dilapidated old abbey in Romania.

Demián Bichir is Father Burke, a man who has devoted his life to the service of God. He is known as a “miracle hunter,” dispatched by the church’s leaders to determine the holiness of various places around the world. Father Burke is haunted by some of the demons of his past — both literal and metaphorical. One exorcism in particular permeates his nightmares, and is something that pops up frequently throughout “The Nun.” Bichir’s performance is fairly standard horror genre work. It rarely rises above the level of a pious, determined man on a mission. But the Academy Award nominee is always interesting to watch, even when the work isn’t as good as his ability.

Taissa Farmiga is Sister Irene, the young novitiate who has not yet taken her vows. When we first meet Sister Irene, she is teaching a classroom of children about dinosaurs, and clearly doesn’t fall in line with all of the strict order and structure required by the Reverend Mother. Fans of “The Sound of Music” will see a little bit of Fraulein Maria in Sister Irene.

Farmiga’s casting elicited a lot of enthusiasm from fans of the franchise. For one thing, her work in several seasons of “American Horror Story” is great. But the more interesting fact was that she happens to be the younger sister of Academy Award nominee Vera Farmiga. The same Vera Farmiga who played Lorraine Warren in both “Conjuring” films. Lorraine spent a great deal of the sequel being haunted by visions of the terrifying nun that Sister Irene is tasked with investigating. The younger Farmiga is perfectly wide-eyed and innocent, while being capable and faithful. She is the type of girl who is innocent, but not naive.

Father Burke and Sister Irene are sent to Romania after a local villager discovers the body of a nun who hung herself outside the old castle-turned-abbey. The young man goes by the name Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) and identifies himself as French Canadian, although his accent betrays the fact that the actor is actually Belgian. Frenchie serves to introduce the pair and the audience to the very basics of the location and the story, but then disappears for quite a long time, as is typical of these types of characters.

Which is one of the biggest problems of “The Nun.” So much of the movie plays out like a series of marks on a Scary Movie Checklist. Foggy, creepy forest? Check. Animals that won’t go into the scary woods? Check. Spooky cemetery? Check again. Visions of things that aren’t really there? Double check.

“The Conjuring” films were impressive additions into the horror genre. The characters feel like real people you want to root for and the jump scares are earned. That “The Nun” is part of the same universe is disappointing. It does not live up to what we got from the films James Wan directed. It is a bit surprising that he shares a story credit. Even Bonnie Aarons, who reprises her role as “The Nun” is not nearly as interesting or terrifying as she was when we first met her. This is her story, yet all we learn is that she isn’t as compelling as we were led to believe. It’s a good thing “The Conjuring 2” had other things going for it, or this would surely diminish that film’s esteem.

There are a lot of problems with “The Nun,” mostly falling on the shoulders of director Corin Hardy. His debut feature, “The Hallows,” was mostly mediocre. That it was enough to land him in the director’s chair for such a popular franchise is unfortunate. He has not demonstrated an understanding of how to craft a compelling horror flick. His work lacks tension and mystery, two ingredients vital to a genre meant to scare.

The other piece that makes “The Nun” such a surprising disappointment is the script by Gary Dauberman. The writer of the other “Conjuring” spin offs, “Annabelle” and “Annabelle Creation” didn’t exactly wow with those. But he was one of the writers on “It,” which was a great adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. It was so good, in fact, that he is also penning the sequel. The script for “The Nun” is boring and plods through a lot of familiar territory. The tale is so basic it feels like it was written by a newcomer. Nothing elevates the material above okay.

Maxime Alexandre‘s cinematography and Abel Korzeniowski‘s score both have moments that work very well. On the technical side of things, those are the only aspects that have anything noteworthy to contribute.

“The Nun” is sometimes bad, but mostly disappointing. Potential and a good jumping off point proved too high a bar to meet.

“The Nun” is distributed by New Line Cinema and is in theaters today.

GRADE: (★★)