Step aside, “Halloween.” Forget it, “Paranormal Activity.” Nice try, “Scream.” “The Conjuring” franchise (or the “Conjuring Cinematic Universe,” the “CCU”) has steadily become the most dependable horror film franchise of late, conquering the box office with good, old-fashioned and flawlessly executed spooks and scares, with a few interesting ideas to boot.
Spinning off James Wan’s 2013 “The Conjuring,” about real-life married ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, the franchise started with true tales of hauntings, possessions and spectral invasions. But there were so many side stories and creepy characters that both “The Conjuring” and “The Conjuring 2” well, conjured up, that more movies were necessary.
There have been two films about Annabelle, the creepiest porcelain doll ever. And now “The Nun” takes on the back story of the imposing demon in a habit that terrorized Lorraine’s visions.
In this spinoff, director Corin Hardy delivers a ’70s throwback gothic horror epic. Written by “Annabelle” screenwriter Gary Dauberma from a story written by Wan, it’s lush, operatic, hard-core Catholic horror from the depths of “The Omen” and “The Exorcist,” with hints of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 drama “Black Narcissus,” washed with medieval overtones. And it’s a total, screaming blast.
Demián Bichir is perfectly cast as Father Burke, a reluctant priest tasked by the Vatican to investigate unusual religious phenomena, or as they call it, “miracle hunting” (he exudes shades of Jason Miller in “The Exorcist”). After young deliveryman Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) discovers the hanged body of a nun at a cloistered Romanian abbey, Burke is sent to investigate the suicide. He is asked to bring along a young novitiate, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), for her familiarity with “the territory.” (She has never been to Romania, but it turns out that that’s not the territory being referred to.)
The people of the village claim the abbey is cursed, bringing a plague upon their houses, and the woods are littered with protective crosses. Once Burke and Sister Irene arrive, they discover it’s not as bad as they expect — it’s worse. The place is a mouth to hell, guarded by terrified nuns who participate in perpetual adoration and prayer to keep the demons at bay, though they aren’t doing all that great a job of it.
Burke must rely on his deep religious historical knowledge, while Irene puts her psychic abilities and visions to use in combating the ancient evil. Frenchie is the audience surrogate, agape at the surreal horrors unfolding within the abbey’s walls, using good old-fashioned firepower as his protection.
French horror cinematographer Maxime Alexandre is well versed in the visual language of the CCU — the slow camera movements, pushes and pulls that build tension, and slow pans that mimic human vision, looking away then back to reveal some demon lurking in the shadows. The camera chases and circles elusive creatures, catching glimpses but never quite finding anything before some hellish doom looms out of the dark.
Despite the sumptuous imagery and sound design enhanced with Gregorian chants, and despite the excellent performances (particularly Farmiga as the steely but vulnerable little nun), “The Nun” fails to execute one element: the question of faith.
The franchise, with its point-of-view camera work and themes of psychic visions, has always pushed the boundaries on “seeing is believing,” and having a little faith in the things you can see that others can’t. In a religious setting, where prayer keeps demons at bay, there’s an opportunity to explore the idea further. But the movie stays on the surface. The surface may be ominous, richly textured and morbidly fascinating, but storywise, it remains shallow.