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‘The Nun’ Gives a Backstory That Nobody Asked For

The spin-off film overexplains a part of the ‘Conjuring’ universe which drew its power from mystery and scarcity

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

In the best sequence from 2016’s The Conjuring 2, Vera Farmiga’s paranormal investigator, Lorraine Warren, is menaced in her husband Ed’s study by a charcoal painting of a scowling nun; the image’s dead yellow eyes seem to follow her around the room before their owner gradually emerges from the canvas into three dimensions. It’s a wonderfully spooky scene that relies on sculptural lighting, clever camera movement, and precise editing to create a sense of something truly uncanny (aided by Farmiga’s acting, which rivals Toni Collette in Hereditary in the terrified-reaction-shot department). Dropped into the middle of an otherwise conventional jump-scare horror movie, the nun’s cameo is both creepy in the moment and genuinely impressive in retrospect—it’s a set piece to remember.

That said, I’m not sure that we needed an entire movie about the nun. That movie is called—try to follow me here —The Nun, and its existence is interesting primarily as an example of just how thoroughly the Conjuring franchise’s creator James Wan has Marvelized mid-budget horror cinema. In a moment where brand loyalty reigns supreme at the box office, Wan’s canny mix of based-on-a-true-story gravitas, gently retro aesthetics, and largely gore-free jump scares has yielded a veritable mini-empire.

The Nun fleshes out the backstory of a character who is a peripheral figure in the Conjuring films (and also, for the record, shows up in Annabelle: Creation—you need a spreadsheet for these things). Imagine if there had been a sequel to The Shining focused on the cosplayer in the dog suit, or a Get Out spin-off about Catherine Keener going to hypnotist school and you get the sense of how simultaneously ambitious and craven nature of Wan’s project. In the best horror movies, the scariest things are often the most glancing, suggestive, and inexplicable. The Nun’s purpose is to retrospectively generate context for something that worked because it seemed to come out of nowhere.

In his epic stand-up bit “At Midnight, I Will Kill George Lucas With a Shovel,” Patton Oswalt ranted about such cynical, reverse-engineering. Oswalt focused on the Star Wars prequels, but his commentary is broadly applicable to everything from Prometheus and Alien: Covenant to Young Sheldon: “I don’t give a shit where the stuff I like comes from: I just love the stuff I love.” The Nun tells us in the first 30 seconds where the Nun comes from: the deepest, darkest part Romania—more specifically, a haunted mountain abbey whose carefully cloistered, habit-wearing inhabitants have kept a secret for generations about the fact that the building stands on the site of an ancient, Buffy-style hellmouth. Hence the hundreds of crosses planted in the surrounding forest as a way of keeping the Evil from breaking free and infiltrating the wider world. Or something.

The director of The Nun is Corin Hardy, an Irish filmmaker who, in 2015, released a nifty, well-engineered little horror movie called The Hallow about a family living in the woods and ends up doing battle with some nasty forest sprites. It was a fairy-tale premise given an efficient, modern spin, with some terrific creature design in the bargain as well. Favorably, The Nun can be viewed as a gifted U.K. up-and-comer’s Hollywood reward for scoring a modest success on his home turf. I’ll give Hardy two things: He’s smart enough to give his Hallow star—and Ben Wheatley MVP—Michael Smiley a hopefully profitable cameo as a priest who’s smart enough to stay safely inside the Vatican when the shit goes down, and he knows how he wants his potential breakthrough movie to look. Visually, The Nun is the dimmest mainstream release that I can remember, with the only sources of visible illumination in many sequences coming from candelabras: It’s like Hardy is trying to make the Barry Lyndon of evil-nun movies.

The Nun is so scrupulously controlled in terms of how it looks that it doesn’t generate any real dread. The plot, which sends hard-assed Vatican ghostbuster Father Burke (Demián Bichir) to Romania along with possibly clairvoyant novice Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate the suicide of a young nun at the abbey is just a pretense for endless shots of the characters skulking around in the half-light of their surroundings, following mysterious noises and routinely encountering what are either supernatural beings or figments of their own overactive imaginations. At times, it doesn’t seem that the movie has even made its mind up about which is which.

The Nun is too repetitive and incoherent (and not in a good, fever-dreamy way) to be suspenseful. It’s more boring than horrifying to play spot-the-CGI ghoul in the background of all those greyscale frames; the real tension comes from trying to guess how what’s happening in its early-’50s setting will match up with the events of the Conjuring films set in the 1970s. Casting Vera Farmiga’s sister as the film’s heroine creates an expectation that the siblings’ characters will end up being linked somehow, but maybe Wan and his team are saving that connection for a further sequel or spin-off; as is, the younger Farmiga gives a credibly wide-eyed performance in a painfully vague role. Bichir, who can be a wonderful actor when given good material (as in his Oscar-nominated turn in A Better Life), is boringly stoic as the sort of character that Richard Burton was smart enough to play for high camp in Exorcist II: The Heretic. The only actor who’s having a decent time here is Jonas Bloquet as the local French-speaking hunk—named, conveniently enough, Frenchie—whose sense of incomprehension at the things going on around him makes him sympathetic, if not a straight-up audience surrogate. (My friend whispered that she recognized Bloquet as Isabelle Huppert’s idiot son from Paul Verhoeven’s great Elle; this revelation was more interesting than anything happening on screen, except maybe for when we find out Frenchie’s real, Christian name.)

I should also give props to Bonnie Aarons, who plays the Nun—a.k.a. “Valak the Defiler” —and, regardless of the movie’s quality, has long since earned her headshot on the horror movie wall of fame. That was her 15 years ago hiding behind the diner at Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive’s scariest scene—a moment that David Lynch, who understands horror, would never try to explain. Aarons’s sharp, angular features have gotten her other gigs ranging from The Princess Diaries to the last-ever great R.E.M. video. A career character actress, she’s leaned into what has become an unlikely starring role as the pale, grimacing face of a high-rolling horror franchise. In a movie whose imagery is often distractingly blurry and generic, her high-cheek-boned expressiveness becomes its own special effect.