The Nun film review: The Conjuring universe gives the demon sister a prequel

Is The Conjuring 2’s monster’s origin story a scary success or a murky mess?

There are lots of reasons to love The Conjuring movies, from the detailed 1970s costumes and powerful performances to the artful way James Wan plays out a jump scare. But the best thing about them is how aware they are that great horror movies don’t just frighten you; they can make you smile, make you cry and most importantly, move you. It’s a notion that The Nun, the latest instalment within the growing franchise, opts to ignore.

Aside from a couple towards the beginning, almost every scene in The Nun is filled with fear-mongering. As soon as Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) arrive at a remote Romanian abbey to investigate a nun’s suicide, the film becomes a series of fleeting, meaningless moments as things go bump in the night and worried-looking characters inexplicably go wandering. We’ve seen it all before and what’s worse is none of it is particularly frightening.

On the occasion it does manage to land its scares, The Nun is undoubtedly at its strongest when it’s taking a leaf out of The Conjuring’s playbook and delivering quiet, eerie scenes that aren’t centred on a jump. One standout sees Irene awaken from a nightmare, only to notice a shadowy crouched figure in the corner of her locked room. As she approaches the entity, you gear yourself up for a shock but it doesn’t quite go the way you’re expecting. It’s a real treat in an otherwise predictable film.

Considering how little fresh narrative The Nun has, the interesting subplots it establishes early on to abandon later are baffling. Burke is given a backstory that could have proved effective if it made any emotional impact as the film zoomed towards its hokey crescendo of an ending. Instead, it’s seemingly just a way to add another monster into the mix that distracts from the titular sinister sister.

Elsewhere, Irene’s initial characterisation flirts with many intriguing themes; doubts over her commitment to God, the reasons why she sought out a life of chastity and obedience in the first place, a mysterious familial link to the Romanian monastery. But such things become obsolete when the scares – which come far too fast and far too frequent – begin…

Because such moments start so early on in the film, there’s no sense of tension-building either so when supply boy Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), Burke and Irene inevitably face-off against the demon Valak, you’re not invested. We’ve seen multiple snarling nuns baring bloodied teeth by this point; it’s hardly going to feel dramatic now. Similarly, our heroes have escaped the clutches of evil several times already so, come the final act, its threat has diminished significantly.

Fortunately, Farmiga turns in a commendable performance, despite the lack of character-building, even if the same can’t be said for her uncharismatic co-stars. Somehow, she manages to make Irene warm and likeable, conveying an inherent innocence and light that makes for a great contrast against the darkness she’s facing.

The Nun also manages to impress with its costumes and gorgeously Gothic locations; their greatness matched by Abel Korzeniowski’s haunting score, which boasts plenty of atmospheric orchestral swells and foreboding religious chanting. It’s just a shame that much of cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s work doesn’t quite possess the same visual flair that has been seen in previous Conjuring Universe outings.

Bookending its own story between flashes of The Conjuring 2 and a scene from the original movie which ties a few things together might prove exciting as the series continues too, but despite those glimmers of promise, The Nun, which has proudly been calling itself ‘the darkest chapter’ in the series in the run-up to its release, winds up being the dullest instead.