THE NUN Review

The NUN is the third in a line of spin-offs prompted by the success of  James Wan's 2013 throwback horror flick, The Conjuring, which itself spawned a sequel in 2016. In between and since those films we have also received the likes of Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation neither of which I've had the privilege of viewing, but from what I hear I'm really (not) missing out. Of course, I didn't see Insidious: The Last Key either, so it seems there is something about these spin-offs of Wan initiated franchises that tend to either push me away or leave me feeling so uninterested I could care less whether I consume them or not (which is saying a lot for a guy who feels the needs to see and assess as many new releases as he can each year). While both Conjuring films had their merits and were, at the very least, well-constructed, the spin-offs featuring that demon-laden doll have had a go of one being bashed as outright terrible and the other being hailed as an effective genre exercise. Unfortunately, if the consensus is true, then The NUN as written by Conjuring-verse veteran Gary Dauberman (who, funnily enough, had nothing to do with either of The Conjuring films, but was one of the credited screenwriters on last year's IT, so I'll give him that) falls into the former category joining 2014's Annabelle as more an opportunity for revenue than a true creative endeavor. Dauberman wrote both Annabelle and last year's Annabelle: Creation though and so maybe, as much as we like to believe story is the most important thing, when it comes to the horror genre it is more about the way in which these ghost stories are constructed and conveyed that matters just a little bit more. Annabelle was directed by first time feature director and former cinematographer John R. Leonetti whereas Creation was directed by Lights Out filmmaker David F. Sandberg who was recognized for a short film he made then adapted into a feature. This is all to say that Sandberg likely has an inherent eye and skill for directing whereas Leonetti may have seen countless director's work over the years, but might not be able on his own to build a cohesive product having to manage several departments at once. This brings us to Corin Hardy who shares more in common with Sandberg in terms of experience and perspective, but whose film shares more in common with what Leonetti apparently crafted. Meaning, The NUN is a fine example of throwing shit against a wall for an hour and a half to see what sticks and then moving on leaving a mess in the wake of whoever has to come behind it and clean-up. I feel bad for whoever makes The NUN: Final Vows.   

The Nun (Bonnie Aarons) apparently doesn't realize she's not a Vampire and that Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) can see her reflection.
Photo by Cos Aelenei - © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc
Set in 1952 in Romania the film's opening sequence glimpses two nuns in a remote Monastery dealing with our titular evil spirit, but why and to what extent we're not yet sure. It is in this opening sequence we get a taste for the type of scares Hardy and his team will attempt to implement throughout the course of the film those being the types of scares that deal more in jumps and gags rather than atmosphere despite the fact Hardy has copious opportunities to capitalize on the atmosphere given the fact he's working in a near-deserted Monastery in fifties-era Romania! Still, we see this evil being/witch/demon-whatever you want to call it-dressed up in its full nun garb wondering the halls and essentially forcing a young nun who holds a relic that will most definitely come to play a more vital role in the movie out a window and into committing an apparent suicide. It is not until days later the young nun is discovered still hanging from the balcony by a local farmer, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet offering some much needed if not oddly placed comic relief), who was appointed to make deliveries to the Monastery. It's almost as if the place, which is noted as the real-life Cârța Monastery in the Țara Făgărașului region of southern Transylvania in Romania, doesn't actually exist as the Convent has kept to themselves and kept quiet for so many years and distanced themselves so much from the community just outside their walls it almost begs the question of why does it actually exist? Why does this movie exist? Anyway-upon hearing about the death of the nun, the Vatican appoints "Miracle Investigator" Father Burke (Demián Bichir) to follow-up on the activities at Cârța as well as advising that he pair with young novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) as they trust her background might assist the priest in his search for answers around what is happening at the Cârța Monastery. Once Burke and Irene arrive in Romania they quickly befriend Frenchie and convince him to show them the way to the Monastery. It is at this point (which is maybe twenty minutes into the movie) the narrative more or less grinds to a halt and things go more into jump scare mode than that of furthering a story or deepening the myth or substance of a particular character. There are hardly characters to root for as they become more of pawns in a haunted house maze of scares that only come to devise a problem they need to find a solution to after the movie has seemingly run out of ideas for what incarnation of a nun could be hiding around the next corner.

There's just not much here. What we have is a collection of everything anyone who's ever seen a handful of scary movies could imagine putting into their own horror flick strung together by a shoestring plot and barely-there characters. Even the characters designed specifically to spout exposition have very little to say or add to the conversation because while we get the gist of what they're supposed to be doing we 1) don't care about them and are given little reason to invest in their plight and 2) the point of their being at this Monastery and what is meant to be accomplished other than investigating the reasons this nun may have committed a mortal sin are so abstract that there is nothing to cling to. Nothing to root us in the mystery at hand. There's nothing to propel the story forward because the film only has so much story at its core that it has to withhold the brunt of it for the third act so that they might be perpetuated as "reveals" when in reality they are simply the necessary facts of a thin story. When a plot twist is something that simply helps one to understand the scenario of our protagonists rather than upending the expectations of that scenario it can hardly be called a twist at all much less a plot, but that is what The NUN attempts to pull off by distracting the audience with all of those aforementioned takes on the jump scare in place of actual story and character work. And I'm not someone who comes down on the jump scare just because it's a cheap and easy way to frighten people while rarely providing any substance to the character or furthering the story-I can appreciate a good jump scare from time to time (there's a solid one in the trailer for this movie, even), but when your movie relies solely on cheap tactics as a way of diverting the audience's attention away from the fact your film has nothing interesting to say and even less interesting ways in which to say what is already minimal it's difficult to give any aspect of the movie a pass. We go to the movies to be entertained, naturally, but we remember the movies that have something interesting to say and convey such thoughts in charismatic and engaging fashions. The NUN has almost none of these elements going for it as what occurs instead in this long parade of individual scenes that build to nothing cohesive and create nothing of significance is a mix of muddled attempts at gothic horror based on Catholic lore executed not with the subtleties of the atmosphere or history of as much in mind, but with the abrasive attack on all of the senses that feel as cold and empty as the Cârța Monastery turns out to be.

Father Burke (Demián Bichir) exorcises the demons in The NUN.
© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc
So, what-if anything-does The NUN have to offer? Is there anything? It's a difficult question to come up with an answer to, but what is maybe the strongest element of the film is that of Abel Korzeniowski's score which, coincidentally, seems to be the only facet of this dumpster fire that "gets" what the movie should have been or at least aimed to be. Korzeniowski's accompanying music is big in the vein of something like a silent movie where the hits of character introductions or actions are as dramatic as the entrances or actions themselves. This could be interpreted as meaning that Korzeniowski was told the film would be going for a certain kind of tone and that he then matched that tone with what he thought would be the right kind of music to heighten such a mood even more, but when paired with the final cut of the film the shots that work best in association with Hardy's images are those big, sweeping location shots as they feel grand in and of themselves, but when paired with the large clashes of strings or repeated hits of brass the scenes elicit a certain kind of on-the-nose, but self-aware feeling that had The NUN stuck to a single tone it might have at least felt cohesive even if its narrative never was. There were many times throughout the film that I had the thought of how awesome certain things must have looked on set and how exhilarating it must have been to the point that everyone in the cast and crew probably perceived that they were making what would be a really scary movie; whether it be the faceless nuns skulking around the hallways in their full robes, the frozen icicle nun that comes back to life, or the full-on Valak-possessed nun (Bonnie Aarons) that unleashes her wrath upon all who enter this particular Convent there is an element to the character design that is generally terrifying and every now and then Hardy will compose a shot that takes advantage of these designs-making the figures more of omniscient presences who seem to be everywhere and nowhere all at once-rather than utilizing them solely to make us jump back in our seats. There are certain aesthetics to the film that are pleasing is what I'm trying to get to, but it's everything they try to do within and around these pleasing aesthetics that falls flat. Sure, the setting of this in the fifties not being taken advantage of as much as it should have been is discouraging and while the disconnect with the story detracts even from being able to appreciate the locations and set designs the fact the titular antagonist does in fact look as creepy as she should is...something. How this antagonist is ultimately conveyed in such an unfulfilling manner though make it difficult to see The NUN in any kind of favorable light.