Victoria Brown, Editor.
If you believed the hype about The Nun after the facebook trailer ban fiasco, you’re likely to be disappointed. Granted, there are a few good jump scares but not even the visually stunning cinematography or creepy sound design can save this film. Now don’t think that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. Immensely. But it is not strictly ‘scary’.
The fifth instalment of James Wan’s Conjuring Universe, The Nun serves as the origin story for the entire franchise. The film follows Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and soon-to-be nun Irene (Taissa Farmiga, the sibling of Vera Farmiga who plays the franchise’s Lorraine Warren) as they are sent by the Vatican to investigate the mysterious suicide of a nun in a remote Romanian convent. Father Burke is an exorcist dealing with the psychological aftershocks of a death he sees as his fault, and Irene is haunted by nightmarish visions, always followed by the peculiar line, “Mary points the way”. The unsettling atmosphere and shocking occurrences lead the pair to believe that the convent is being haunted by an evil force – one more evil than they could ever imagine.
Sounds good, right? And it is, mostly. The Nun’s director Corin Hardy is a newcomer to the franchise, and a welcome addition. His British retro-horror aesthetic comes through in the film’s gorgeous cinematography and use of dramatic gothic imagery. His decision to shoot in a real castle instead of a custom-built set was brilliant because it adds a texture to the shots that would be almost impossible to recreate in a studio. His use of contrasting tones (gray/blue versus bright red blood) is extraordinary and improves the film, but despite the beauty of the visuals, the story falls a little short. It is generic, a little predictable, and at times just straight-up silly. And the Nun itself (Bonnie Aarons), while visually unsettling, never seems to have a clear motive other than being evil. The Nun’s screenwriter Gary Dauberman is responsible for Annabelle and the 2017 remake of It, so judge it that way if you wish (as I am).
The film’s saving grace is Taissa Farmiga. Like her sister, Taissa has an almost quiet authority to her performance and she is an utter pleasure to watch on screen. Fans of the controversial televisual horror American Horror Story will be familiar with her style and will not be disappointed. The film’s comic relief, French-Canadian Maurice known as “Frenchie”, has great chemistry with Taissa, and their relationship is magnetic and authentic.
I do sympathise with The Conjuring Universe. Horror is a genre that has to compete in ways no other genre has to. Every single trailer you see for horror films claims it to be “more terrifying than…blah blah blah”, “the scariest film since…blah blah blah”, or “the most horrifying film of the year”, which is something you rarely see in trailers for other genres. And horror as a genre is often misunderstood: horror, technically, refers to bodily horror such as blood and guts and violence, whereas terror is all about psychological fear, mood, and ambience. If we consider The Nun in a strictly ‘horror’ definition, then is does not fall short (a close-up of the deceased nun is particularly horrifying), but to me, it is more a ‘terror’ film. The atmosphere is creepy and uncanny, and goes back to the classic Gothicism embraced by the early Universal films and Britain’s Hammer Horror.
Overall, The Nun is an enjoyable ‘horror/terror’ film with a fantastic performance from its generic ‘final girl’, but perhaps a forgettable addition to the narrative universe.