The Nun Trades Atmosphere For Dumb Popcorn Scares

After months of anticipation and a lean marketing campaign, The Nun finally hit theatres across North America this week. The fifth film in the hugely successful The Conjuring universe, The Nun is currently tracking for the best box office opening in the franchise. Critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes has been harsh – The Nun currently sits with a lowly ‘Rotten’ rating of 29% at the time this review was written. That’s actually slightly worse than what we saw for the January release of Insidious: The Last Key. Does The Nun truly disappoint to that extent?

Synopsis

In 1952, two nuns of the Cârța Monastery in Romania are attacked by an unseen entity in the bowels of the castle. One of these nuns, Sister Victoria, is stalked through the halls by a demonic presence before sacrificing herself to prevent the evil from taking possession of her souls. Her body is found the next morning, hanging outside the building, by a local villager, Frenchie.

Concerned that the Monastery rests on tainted grounds, the Vatican sends Father Burke and a noviciate Sister Irene to investigate. Brought to the aging Monastery by Frenchie, Father Burke and Sister Irene are confronted by bizarre supernatural phenomenon. As their investigation continues, they discover that the Monastery has hidden a gateway from the demonic realm. The nuns of the Cârța Monastery have endured horrors to prevent an evil entity, Valak, from breaking free.

Muddled Narrative and Kitchen-Sink Theatrics

Much of the problem with The Nun can be attributed to its surprisingly muddled narrative. Gary Dauberman’s story is admittedly sparse, walking a fine a line between being ‘lean’ and ‘undercooked’. This is officially the third cinematic outing for Valak. Yet despite the fact that this is the demonic nun’s movie, the cloistered terror isn’t given much to do. Instead, Dauberman fills the middle of the movie with an unnecessary subplot around Father Burke that never amounts to more than a time-filler. Jonas Bloquet’s ‘Frenchie’ is perhaps a little too much comic relief for the movie. As The Nun nears its climax, Dauberman introduces convoluted ideas about ancient Christian relics that overburden the story.

Director Corin Hardy masks some of these narrative issues with a kitchen-sink approach to scares and jumps.

Director Corin Hardy masks some of these narrative issues with a kitchen-sink approach to scares. Hardy abandons early atmospherics, replacing them with a barrage of sights and sounds intended to get your blood pumping and fingers gripping seat armrests. The Nun’s climax almost feels over-stuffed, as though attempting to compensate for a ‘dead end’ in the movie’s story. Aside from the ‘loudness’ and gimmicky feel of some of the scares, it does sometimes feel like what you’re seeing is inconsistent with the mythology that has been established with the character of Valak. That is, some of the scares feel manufactured rather than organically flowing from the characters and story.

Gothic Atmosphere and Chills That Harken Back to Hammer Films’ Glory Days

In spite of these issues, The Nun is still a fun and scary film even if it falls short of The Conjuring films. Director of photography, Maxime Alexandre, has made a beautiful and lush horror film. He injects some truly chilling Gothic imagery into its early frames. From the massive outline of the monastery to misty graveyards, The Nun recalls the best elements of old British Hammer horror films.

Director of photography, Maxime Alexandre, has made a beautiful and lush horror film that injects some truly chilling Gothic imagery into its early frames.

And yes, director Corin Hardy does succumb to quite a few horror film cliches. He sacrifices some of The Nun’s early atmosphere for over-the-top jump scares. But Hardy does these things quite well. Specifically, Hardy expertly sets up and executes each scare with a deft hand. Horror fans seeing The Nun in theatres won’t be disappointed by a lack of fun ‘jump out of your seat’ moments. What The Nun is missing is the restraint in developing scares that James Wan showed in The Conjuring films.

Tessa Farmiga Continues To Be One of The Best Young Actors Working Today

Tessa Farmiga, who has already endeared herself to horror fans in American Horror Story, delivers a standout performance. As Sister Irene, Farmiga combines youthful naïveté with selfless determination. The end result is a completely believable performance set against an increasingly overcrowded horror film. Playing the troubled Father Burke, Demian Bichir has the more thankless task. That is, Father Burke not only feels underwritten, but Dauberman’s screenplay saddles him with an unnecessary backstory. It’s an inconsistently written character that’s well played by Bichir. In addition, Bloquet is fun as ‘Frenchie’ and, as an actor, he has no shortage of charisma. But like Father Burke’s character, Dauberman’s screenplay gives the character some inconsistent and underwritten treatment.

The Nun Entertains and Scares in Equal Measures

Criticisms of The Nun are largely on point. Nevertheless, the movie’s current Rotten Tomatoes score is one of the more inaccurate assessments of a movie in recent memory. To put this into perspective, The Nun has a worse score than Insidious: The Last Key. I have seen both of these movies and The Nun is a far better movie. On one hand, The Nun is haunted by an underdeveloped story and over-reliance on jump scares. Yet each and every one of those scares hits its mark. But while it falls short of the expectations set by The Conjuring movies, The Nun is still a scary and wildly entertaining popcorn horror film. Most audiences are likely to enjoy it in a crowded, dark movie theatre.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B

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Author: Andrew Welsh

I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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