The only thing that’s gonna really scare you while watching The Nun is realizing how little effort has been put into this shockingly empty film. Considering not just how good the prior entries in the Conjuring saga have been but also the level of quality and creativity seen in recent horror films like Hereditary and A Quiet Place, The Nun’s shallow attempts at horror filmmaking feel all the more egregious. Probably the highest compliment I can offer to it is that it at least gives the immensely talented Demian Bichir his first opportunity to headline a high-profile American film. Oh, and it’s also better than The Bye-Bye Man, I suppose that’s a plus.
Taking place in 1952, about twenty years prior to the two Conjuring movies, The Nun chronicles where the demonic nun villain from the second Conjuring feature came from. Turns out, she came from a monastery in Romania, one that’s been trying to keep her wickedness locked up for decades. However, the impact of bombs dropped in the surrounding area during World War II have shaken her free and now this Nun is running rampant across the monastery just as Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) have been sent by the Catholic Church to investigate if everything is A-OK at this very same monastery. Spoiler alert: there are some spooky shenanigans afoot.
The Nun feels bereft of any sort of details that could give its characters, its story or its scares any sort of personality. Of course, how could the whole movie not feel so devoid of an identity when the whole affair feels so phoned-in and haphazardly put together? The script by Gary Dauberman is a far cry from his fine work on writing Annabelle: Creation last year, though that particular Conjuring film had a sense of occasional wit to it that made it much more fun to watch. Here, the whole screenplay’s a mess, the characters are given the thinnest bit of personalities or personal problems that barely factor into anything (Burke’s tragic past with an exorcism gone wrong goes absolutely nowhere for instance) and worst of all the writing has a bad habit of telling and not showing.
For instance, key supporting character Maurice (Jonas Bloquet) mentions that the evil spirits of the monastery have become so powerful they’re negatively affecting the nearby village he resides in, but we never get to see these negative effects, we just hear people talking about bad things that have transpired. Worse still is all kinds of clunky dialogue meant to explain things that the audience can clearly infer from visual cues. Not only does this feel like a direct insult to the intellegence of the viewer, but it undermines potentially chilling imagery by having a character drop some tin-eared ADR’d off-screen dialogue to explain obvious things like “Maybe those books in the grave can help us!”
Worst of all though, The Nun isn’t really all that scary of a movie, especially when compared to its predecessors. The best of these Conjuring movies have a great sense of how to build up dread in the background and keep you on the edge of your seat waiting for something terrifying to happen, but The Nun just doesn’t seem to have a clue on how to properly execute scenes meant to scare the viewer. There’s an early scene of Maurice first encountering The Nun in a graveyard that seems like it’s going somewhere chilling as The Nun lingers in the background, following Maurice around, only for the camera to ruin that Jaws/Alien-inspired sense of unease stemming from not knowing what’s following you by abruptly cutting to a close-up of The Nun.
Any potential style or terror is suddenly wiped away from the scene and that’s really the only moment in The Nun that provides even wasted potential for scares. The rest of the meek attempts at horror are either recycling bits from The Conjuring 2 (like crosses on the wall being turned upside down in the presence of The Nun), disposable jump scares or attempts at story twists that don’t make any sense at all. Actors Taissa Farmiga and especially Demian Bichir (the latter of whom offers more effective world-weary gravitas in his performance than the movie deserves) try their best to keep things afloat in their game performances, but even they can’t salvage a mess like The Nun that takes the whole Conjuring franchise to a new low in terms of both quality and scares.