The Nun takes one of most imposing foes in the recently unveiled The Conjuring universe, and almost entirely spoils the mystique built up by the previous movies in the series. Set roughly two decades prior to the first Conjuring, The Nun follows Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a Vatican-sanctioned exorcist as he investigates a mysterious suicide at a Romanian abbey. He teams up with Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a soon-to-be nun with psychic powers, and Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the villager who discovered the dead nun. The trio explores the abbey, hunt the titular nun, and search for an ancient artefact containing the blood of Jesus Christ.
Varak, the Marquis of Snakes, makes a return from the previous Conjuring movies, once again adopting her yellow-eyed, pale-skinned nun form. But the extra screen time hasn’t done Varak any favors. In the previous film, her infrequent presence was mysterious and unsettling; she drifted through scenes, hiding at the edge of the Conjuring universe. But her many appearances in The Nun are more jarring and absurd than unsettling – her final appearance is over the top and so poorly executed that she becomes more of a joke than a threat.
Set in the flooded depths of the abbey, the main trio work together to return Varak to the demonic dimension she was summoned from. It’s a tired climax that seems to be the default conclusion to modern demonic possession stories. It’s an issue that calls attention to a genre-wide problem; for a creature-based horror story to be effective, the main monster must be well defined and consistent. The scope of Varak’s powers fluctuate constantly. She can shapeshift, summon snakes, warp reality, generate illusions, emit sonic blasts and possess humans. The variety of abilities prevents Varak’s scenes from becoming dull, but she isn’t scary because there’s no grounding in her character. The greatest monsters and the best horror is rooted in rules, and The Nun is a movie that defies logic and never establishes a concrete ruleset. The cartoonish final battle, during which any one of her powers could have ensured Varak’s success, the supposed demonic threat ignores these abilities and engages in hand-to-hand combat with Irene.
The three primary protagonists in The Nun don’t fare much better than Varak, with characters as flimsy as the film’s premise. Burke, who’s presented as the main character, is devoid of personality traits; he’s supposed to seem like a hybrid between Sherlock Holmes and an exorcist: cool, capable and calm. But he’s more of an undercooked stand-in for the Warrens than a badass demon hunter. Beyond his occasional allusion to past failures and his unshakable piety, there is nothing to invest in.
Despite an interesting introduction, Irene is equally shallow. When we first meet her, Irene is being chastised for questioning Christian doctrine, but that friction between her vows and her faith disappears completely from the script as the film goes on. She spends the remainder of the runtime embracing her faith as if she never had doubts to begin with. While the end of the film delivers closure for the character, with her vows taken and the life of a nun begun, this still leaves her story feeling incomplete due to the dropped conflict from earlier.
Irene’s casting is also odd; Taissa Farmiga looks nearly identical to her sister, Vera Farmiga who is prominently featured in the mainline Conjuring movies as Lorraine Warren. There’s no apparent connection between the two characters and unless Irene turns out to be related to Lorraine in some way, the casting choice is odd, confusing and distracting. The fact that Vera Farmiga also makes an appearance in the movie only worsens the effect — viewers are invited to make comparisons between the two actors so it’s baffling how the script ignores their relation.
The rare occasions when The Nun allows all three characters to play off each other together are as frustrating as when they’re alone. Though the actors gel well enough, the characters never have any meaningful interactions or conflicts with one another. Any threats that arise are handled solo: Frenchie’s escape from the castle, Irene’s attempts to become a nun, Burke’s late-night encounter with Varak. The characters are presented as a team, but are never given an opportunity to bond — even the final encounter divides them, forcing Irene to handle the demon alone.
The Nun is also full of misplaced humor — though most of it is unintentional. Varak is appropriately creepy when she wanders silently through the abbey, but she’s less threatening when her presence is more direct. In one scene, she takes the form of a possessed boy from Burke’s past and tricks Burke into an open grave. Immediately after he falls into the coffin, the camera springs up revealing a headstone with his name already carved into it. It’s an unintentionally hilarious moment; the timing, swift pan up, and goofy ’50s B-movie-esque premade tombstone feel like a parody, but they’re not and the disconnect is noticeably degrading to the film.
The other instances of humor, seemingly intentional this time, are no less misplaced. Frenchie serves two roles in The Nun: the first is as an unnecessary male counterpart for Irene and the second is as a source of sarcastic humor. He quips his way through the film, ruining tense moments with campy, humorless jokes. Injecting comedy into horror isn’t taboo — the two genres share similar storytelling values — but The Nun use of humor dilutes its horror. It’s a recurring tonal problem that contributes to the pervasive inconsistency that’s present throughout the film.
It’s exciting to see a successful horror cinematic universe continue to succeed, but it’s unfortunate that in the case of The Conjuring each spinoff is worse than the last. The Nun manages to retroactively lessens the impact of Varak’s previous appearances; it’s difficult to care about a creature whose origin and abilities are uninteresting and poorly defined.
It’s a shame that horror’s most prominent film series doesn’t have more to offer.