“Every picture has its shadows / And it has some source of light;” so sang Joni Mitchell, a painter herself among her other formidable talents, though she could equally as well have been describing the essential structure of a dramatic narrative, particularly horror, where it is only by contrasting it with uplifting moments that the darkness truly becomes defined.
The fifth film in The Conjuring sequence and tied most closely with the screeching hysterics of 2016’s The Conjuring 2 which introduced the demonic nun Valak, torturing Ed and Lorraine Warren in Enfield in the mid seventies, those scenes are depicted here in an unnecessary recap as though that context might grant some much needed depth to The Nun which actually takes place in 1952, over twenty years before.
There has been a suicide at the Cârța Monastery in southern Transylvania in Romania, and Father Burke (Alien: Covenant‘s Demián Bichir) is assigned by the Vatican: “The church reaches out to me when it needs an investigation into unusual phenomena,” he explains to novitiate Sister Irene (American Horror Story‘s Taissa Farmiga) who accompanies him on his task.
Guided to the monastery by “Frenchie” (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets‘ Jonas Bloquet) who discovered the hanged body of Sister Victoria, their enquiries lead them to a confrontation with the demonic entity that has been held back by decades of prayer and the power of the ancient reliquary which the sisters have guarded as their last and greatest weapon against this ancient evil which lurks in the catacombs.
Directed by The Hallow‘s Corin Hardy from a screenplay by Gary Dauberman from a story co-written by James Wan, The Nun is as empty as a plundered tomb, ninety minutes of witless jump scares and cheap theatrics as bodies are hurled through the air and buckets of blood are poured down the stone stairs of the monastery, Valak itself having the dread presence of a store-bought Hallowe’en costume.
Where religious horror should be filled with existential dread, a threat not only mortal but to the hope of any life beyond, so shallow is The Nun that not even being buried alive elicits fear as it is preferable to enduring the film; consider the opening scene of Damien: Omen II as Bugenhagen drowns in sand as an example of the genuine terror the likes of which The Nun could only pray for.
The dialogue the most diabolical thing about the film, the plot is a string of clichés, the local villagers serving as harbingers of doom who refuse to approach the monastery where an occult obsessed duke opened a portal to Hell which only the blood of Jesus Christ can close; Lorraine Warren now claiming to possess a splinter of “the one true cross,” why should this be any more surprising than if she stated she were also the reincarnation of Cleopatra?
Shot on vast sets which scream “movie set” rather than the somewhat more modest five hundred year old building in which the action supposedly takes place, the magnificent exterior establishing shots filmed on location in genuine Dracula country could have come from a different film, so different is the mood and style; otherwise, The Nun is relentlessly gloomy and overwrought, another film built around the shaky conceit that Christianity has a monopoly on goodness while offering no intellectual or emotional substance to support the claim.