The Nun is the fifth movie in The Conjuring Universe, which are dramatizations of the real-life cases of paranormal investigators and authors Ed and Lorraine Warren. As the true story of the Warrens gets controversial* — Ed Warren has been accused of having had a lover live in their house for four decades, starting when she was underage — not to mention Gerald Brittle, author of a book about the Warrens called The Demonologist, suing Warner Brothers claiming they stole his idea, it’s only natural that the storyline move to only tangentially involves the main characters.
The series begins with The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, during which the Warrens investigate the haunting of the Perron family. There’s some tremendous art direction in this film, particularly when it comes to the Warren’s occult museum where they keep all of the objects they come across, kind of like the trophies in Batman’s cave. There are also some genuinely frightening moments, giving one hope that true scares still have a place in the multiplex.
The first spin-off, 2014’s Annabelle, was seen by many as a misstep. I enjoyed the film’s Manson Family allusions if not the entire story. 2016’s The Conjuring 2, which dealt with the Enfield Poltergeist incident (and offered potential spinoffs like The Crooked Man and Valak the Nun, who we’ll get to in a second, I promise) got the series back on steady ground. And 2017’s Annabelle: Creation was a box office success.
Becca disliked both Annabelle movies at first, yet has come to enjoy both of them on video and has tattoos of Valak and Annabelle, so that should tell you how excited we were for the potential of The Nun, a movie that has been teased for over a year with effective trailers and artwork. Just look at that poster that’s part of this article. Kudos to the PR and ad team that worked on this — you got us in the theater. But did we have a good time?
Funny aside — the theater where we went is often my favorite to see a new horror film in. It’s always packed with raucous teenagers who shout, scream and go crazy during the jump scares. None of that happened here. Perhaps it was the fact that the air conditioning didn’t work on a 90 plus degree day (we were offered the chance to see something else or wait an hour to see another showing, but we decided to stick with it). Or perhaps it was the fact that someone brought a baby with colic to see the movie and that child coughed throughout, continually giving us the real world worry that someone was insane enough to bring a child to a 10 PM movie. Then again — if a movie is really engaging, it defeats its environment and captures you. I’ve seen some great movies in fleabag theaters, after all.
The Nun starts in 1950’s Romania, as two nuns are being attacked by something we can’t see. They’re searching for an artifact, yet one nun is dragged into the darkness while the other hangs herself to that she can’t be taken by the demonic force. Her body, partially devoured by crows, is found in the morning by Frenchie, a villager who brings the nuns supplies.
When the Vatican learns of these events, they send “miracle hunter” Father Burke and novitiate nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera, who is the actress who plays Lorraine Warren in these films) to investigate. There, they learn that Sister Victoria’s body has moved from where she was laid to rest and that she’s holding a strange key.
While they stay at the abbey, all hell breaks loose. Irene has more of the visions she’s had her entire life and Burke is haunted by a possessed child (spin-off alert) that he failed to save. Valak appears and buries Burke alive, with Irene saving him at the last minute by digging him up. There’s a moment here where I thought, “Surely they’re not going to rip off the scene in Fulci’s City of the Living Dead where Christopher George uses a pickaxe to rescue the girl.” Of course they do. But it’s also framed and presented in a way that has none of the visceral impact of the way that Fulci shot it. Perhaps this is your first clue that I didn’t like this movie very much.
The next day, the nuns reveal that they’ve been praying non-stop to keep some evil at bay. After all, the abbey was built in the Dark Ages by an evil duke who worshipped the devil and summoned Valak, just at the moment that Crusaders broke in, killed him and sealed the gateway to Hell using the blood of Jesus Christ. The flashback that happens here presents us with a glimpse of a film that would have been much better and more exciting than what we’re currently enduring, a film that necessitates constant looks at your watch and math to determine just how many minutes are left before you can escape the theater.
Bombing runs during World War II broke the seal and now, the evil of Valak has been slowly leaking into the abbey and the surrounding village (again, a much better idea for a film that we only get glimpses of). Nun by nun has fallen to Valak’s evil and now, the nun who seemingly runs the abbey has transformed into Daniel, the buy who Burke failed to exorcize, and is attacking him.
While all that’s going on, Frenchie comes back to help and Irene joins a prayer circle of nuns who were never really there in the first place. Valak carves a star into the shoulder of Irene before taking her to a room filled with dead nuns whose heads are covered by bloody rags, making one long for a better nun film such as Alucarda.
This is where the film shows it has no concept of the occult, kind of a cardinal sin when it comes to making a movie about it. Valak traps Irene inside a pentagram, instead of the center of the pentagram being used to protect and ward off the evil spirits. Everything up to here is shown to be Irene’s visions. Keep in mind that devout Catholics believe that feeling the presence of spirits would be heretical, but this is a script that doesn’t understand anything that it’s writing about, so just go with it.
Finally, our heroic trio find the Blood of Christ (and a woman is entrusted with it, showing again that this film has no real understanding of the Catholic Church) and use it to stop Valak (again, with that Blood of Christ being spit out of a human mouth in an act that a devout Catholic would find completely against their belief).
Because every movie in this series has to tie back to the others, it turns out that Frenchie is the possessed man that appeared in the footage the Warrens show when we first see them. That said — the dialogue where Ed says, “They called him Frenchie,” was added and did not appear in the original film.
Let’s cut to the chase. This is worse than a bad movie. It’s a boring movie that squanders the promise of great scares. At no point was I worried for anyone’s safety. There’s no real story arc for any of the characters, nothing that moves them through other than interchangeable forces of good and evil for the sake of telling us about this great evil that we’ve already seen in a better movie.
The Catholic Church has been through some rough media in the past few weeks. Completely justified bad media, mind you. The Nun seemingly takes place in some alternate world filled with free thinking nuns like Sister Irene who believe that we should question everything and who are presented as being seen as on the same level as a priest. I loved that in the midst of all the Satanic panic at the end of this film, she takes the time to finish her vows and become a full nun, as it’s a great advertisement for a church that wants nothing to do with a movie like this that claims that exorcisms and possession are real. It’s another one of God’s mysteries: a film that is the best sales pitch for the Catholic Church in years is one that they’d abhor. Take it from someone who angrily yelled at the Pittsburgh Catholic** and their reviewer Father Peter Horton from the age of 9.
I know that I’ve been down this same path so many times, determined not to be an old man yelling that movies used to be so much better when I was young. But time and time again, I get all excited about something new only to be crushed by the resulting boredom and ennui that modern horror delivers. I should have to watch The Other Hell three times in a row as my penance.
*The Warrens have always been controversial. Skeptical investigators have said that while the couple was very nice and genuinely sincere in their beliefs, pleasant people, they were “at best, as tellers of meaningless ghost stories, and at worst, dangerous frauds.” They also determined that some of their most famous tales, such as Amityville never happened. That said — that battle against skeptics has been a major part of The Conjuring Universe.
**The Pittsburgh Catholic also featured a list of what films good Catholics should avoid. Notably, favorites like Amityville II: The Possession, The Howling and Halloween were rated O for morally offensive. Therefore, they’re the movies you want to see.