It’s been five years since James Wan terrified us with The Conjuring, and we’re already on the fifth installment of this fractured film franchise with The Nun. Though inspired by the case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring Universe has been moving away from the Warrens, tossing Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga to far fringes of this prequel, which fills in the backstory of The Conjuring 2’s demonic nun. With Wan long gone from the film series helm, there was the potential of exploring horror flavors outside of “haunted house” and giving new talent in horror a chance to shine. But Corin Hardy’s sloppy attempt at atmospheric terror suggests it may be time for this franchise to give up the ghost.
The Nun is set in 1952, 19 years before The Conjuring’s tale. Instead of the Warrens, it centers on a newly minted pair of paranormal investigators, exorcist Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate who experiences strange religious visions. The strange suicide of a nun spurs the Catholic Church to sends them to investigate a far-flung abbey in the mountains of Romania. With the help of an arrogant but sexy villager called Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the pair uncovers a powerful evil that has overrun the convent and threatens to spread.
Aside from the bookends that explicitly tie The Nun into the Warrens’ story, this prequel feels completely unmoored from the franchise. The Conjuring 1 & 2 both offered intimate haunted house tales that focus on fiercely loving families. The familiar settings of bedrooms and basements allowed us to easily imagine such terror taking root in our own homes. They grounded the horror with the familiar, then made it more menacing by turning the mundane malevolent. Much like the first spinoff sequel Annabelle, The Nun goes to creepy too fast. Just as you might scoff when anyone takes a doll as horrid looking as that into their nursery, you know this abbey is spooky as hell from its first frame. There’s no build and nowhere to go from there. Beyond that, wandering around a massive castle that’s been converted into a convent isn’t a common experience, which distances the terror from the Conjuring’s fans.
More vexing, Hardy makes no apparent effort to establish the geography of his massive set. In The Conjuring movies, geography was key to driving tension, creating suspense through proximity. Here, it’s impossible to know where characters are as they wind through the seemingly endless labyrinth of stone hallways that all look the same. Rather than chilling, it becomes repetitive as more crosses and more stony stretches of hallway taunt our heroes. Worse still, The Nun loses faith in its titular ghoul. Instead of building devotedly from that chilling image from The Conjuring 2, her spinoff is quick to wedge in a creepy kid and a cadre of haunted nuns to round out the scares. I get the reasoning. As a leering figure in an ominous painting, the nun was intriguing and spine-tingling. Let loose in a convent, this demonic sister fast becomes a hokey excuse for jump scares. Yet none of the jump scares possess the shock and snap to earn their name.
To their credit, Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga are committed to this grim endeavor. He brings a stirring steeliness, she a wet-eyed earnestness. But there’s a requisite stiffness to their interactions demanded by their vocational relationship, barring us from engaging with them as emotionally as we might the Warrens. There’s a remoteness to the setting and heroes that keeps us at a regretful remove. The only fun comes from Frenchie. Bloquet plays this shotgun-packing stud with a spirited swagger that sells the film’s rare action moments. Because this is a prequel, the movie could very well kill off each of these principal characters, allowing for a deeply dark chapter to its tale. That should stir dread and fear. But I was only concerned about Frenchie, because he came alive as a character, existing beyond a prudent stereotype of pious devotion and unspoken trauma.
Simply put, The Nun isn’t scary. Suspense never sparks. The dread is dull. Its cryptic creatures feel carelessly constructed, and the heroes are too vague to invest in. All we’re left with is the same religious iconography a horde of horror filmmakers have played with before to more haunting ends. Hardy shows no skill in brewing mood, much less satisfyingly harrowing horror set pieces. (Though the ScreenX of it all did him no favors.) There’s nothing in The Nun that even comes close to the masterful build of tension and terror that Wan gave us in The Conjuring’s clapping sequence. So, the best thing that can be said about this painfully underwhelming prequel is that it proves the death of Hardy’s proposed Crow reboot was a blessing.