You know, I was actually looking forward to The Nun (2018). Like everybody else back in 2013, I loved The Conjuring and was excited about the anthology angle that the series appeared to be heading in: exploring different ghosts, goblins, demons and other supernatural entities that ostensibly locked horns with the Warrens back in the day. That was, of course, the original idea behind the Halloween franchise — a series of otherwise unrelated movies that each happened to take place on the titular holiday — and audiences had warmed up to the concept in the decades since Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) was unfairly decried as one of the worst sequels ever made.
But then came Annabelle (2014), a rush job sequel focusing on the supposed backstory of the awkwardly shoehorned in possessed Annabelle doll that only existed in the first movie because they needed an easy introduction to the demon hunting Warren couple and a horror set piece to ramp up the third-act tension into its climactic finale. And while I enjoyed the prequel far more than the average moviegoer — because it was an ultimately okay movie with a few solid scenes of terror and a genuinely endearing protagonist couple — even I couldn’t defend it as being anything better than simply passable (and certainly a far cry from the promise of the prior year’s franchise debut).
The Conjuring 2 (2016), although certainly far better than the movie it immediately followed within its own franchise, was similarly disappointing. It was an over-stuffed, under-developed, ultimately less-than-interesting sendup of memorable horror films like The Amityville Horror (1979) while actually working double-time to set-up more Conjuring sequels, prequels and spinoffs for Warner Bros. to exploit. This is where you got the Nun character, Valak, who was even more obviously shoehorned in and even less necessary to the film than Annabelle was three years prior, who awkwardly had to compete with the sequel’s actual horror villain, the Crooked Man,, for both screen time and importance.
Finally, we got Annabelle: Creation (2017), an Annabelle prequel (and thus a Conjuring pre-prequel) that told the real backstory behind the Annabelle doll: if not outright retconning the first movie’s narrative, than at least reframing it in a way that was much more palatable to general audiences. And while it was hardly the horror revelation that it was cited as at the time of its release, it is certainly a demonstrable step forward in terms of quality for the franchise, more interesting narratively and an all-around more entertaining film when all was said and done.
But, of course, Warner Bros couldn’t end there. In addition to third Annabelle and Conjuring movies, as well as a Crooked Man spinoff, which are already in the works, we have The Nun: a third Conjuring prequel that explores the backstory of Valak: the spooky addition to The Conjuring 2 that was only added during reshoots because the movie wasn’t scary enough otherwise. And, somehow, it’s even worse than Annabelle.
Set in a post-war Romanian convent, a pair of nuns — the terrified, last nuns in the holy site — make a last-ditch gambit to contain the evil that resides within the ancient grounds: Valak the Deceiver. Journeying down into the catacombs lower levels, they hope to retrieve a sacred artifact containing the blood of Christ himself and use it to seal the demon within the convent walls once and for all. But when Valek, who requires a living host in order to escape captivity, kills one of the nuns, the remaining bride of Christ throws herself out of the tower window to keep it contained within.
That’s a lot of setup, right? It kinds of reminds me of the needlessly wordy setup for Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) earlier this year. That description all takes place in the movie’s prolog (after a gratuitous Conjuring 2 recap that nobody needed nor asked for). And, despite what its placement and detail might otherwise suggest, absolutely ‘nun’ of it matters.
This movie plays so fast and loose with its own internal logic that I couldn’t keep straight what was actually happening within the context of its run-time. Why did it needlessly kill one nun when it required a living host to exit the convent (which it absolutely didn’t have to, mind you, since said nun was easily subjugated and afforded time enough to warn the other nun of its coming)? At what point did it actually manage to posses one of the protagonists and escape (so as to tie it in with its already established place in the wider Conjuring universe) when everything about the movie’s climax seems to indicate that it should be defeated? Is Mrs. Warren now possessed by Valak (as the film’s epilog seems to suggest)? Why didn’t Valak just possess somebody sooner (which it clearly seemed capable of doing) and just avoid all of the needless jump scares?
Yeah, it’s the kind of a movie, People. And, yes, it’s all terrible.
The real movie starts when a hardboiled priest (a so-called Miracle Hunter who investigates supernatural phenomena for the Church) and a novice nun (who suffers from decidedly Warren-esque visions of the future) go to investigate the aforementioned nun’s suicide and determine whether or not the convent grounds are still holy (spoiler alert: they’re not). Along the way, they are joined by a Canadian delivery boy named Frenchie who first discovered the nun’s dangling corpse.
The Conjuring, as you might recall, was a spellbinding piece of horror cinema. It built tension through expert direction, matter-of-fact cinematography and top-notch performances from a cast of talented thespians. And when it would occasionally make use of the often-maligned jump scares, they actually made them work. They used them to sparingly punctuate moments of tension in genuinely evocative ways. It was just one of many tools at director James Wan’s disposal, and he knew how to effectively incorporate it into the rest of the movie.
The Nun, however, is not nearly so restrained as Wan’s work in The Conjuring, though. Every scare — every. single. one. Without fail — is a jump scare. Every one of those jump scares is flagrantly telegraphed well in advance. And every one of those jump scares is unconscionably loud, grating and unpleasant to sit through.
Although they might be dismissed by huge segments of the horror community as cheap and annoying, when utilized correctly, jump scares are just as effect as anything else a director can do. As seen in The Conjuring, when used infrequently and not cheapened by constant fake-outs, they are a great way to punctuate a tense scene that’s been working over an audience for some time. In that context, it’s a shocking release of pent-up energy that feels earned and weighty. But in The Nun, where the tension is nonexistent and the supposed scares come one-after-another at the madcap pace of jokes in a Mel Brooks movie, they’re just annoying and tiresome.
Similarly, nothing about The Nun feels neither earned nor necessary. Its connections to the franchise’s lore are fleeting, the rules its played by are ill-defined and frequently broken and it can’t even deliver on the few solid scares that most moviegoers will be looking for in one of these films. And when Daniel, the possessed boy whose specter haunts the priest character throughout the movie, inevitably gets a prequel of his own (which seems to be the only reason why he was included in this movie at all, like Valak and Annabelle before him), don’t expect any better than you get here. Maybe it’s just time to put these movies to rest, once and for all.