The Nun has been enjoying a robust showing at the box office, and it’s easy to see why. It’s backed by the sizable support of the ever-expanding The Conjuring franchise, and it was released with a savvy sense of timing; late enough into September to whet the seasonal appetite for horror, but early enough to get ahead of the incoming torrents of competitors. But if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that good marketing is not a substitute for quality, especially in a series as inconsistent as this one.
As has become the trend with the ever-regressing The Conjuring series, The Nun is a period piece, this time set in 1952. Father Burke (Demián Bichir), an investigator for what is essentially the Vatican’s X-Files unit, is sent to an isolated Romanian monastery upon the news of a young nun’s mysterious suicide there. Sent to accompany him is novice Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) – who is bafflingly not meant to be an ancestor of The Conjuring’s Lorraine Warren, despite having similar paranormal visions and bearing an obvious resemblance. Soon after their arrival at the abbey, the two find themselves being terrorized by a sinister habit-clad demon.
The plot of The Nun is nothing you haven’t seen before, but there’s something appealingly old-fashioned in how it approaches its time-honored material. Like a classic scary story, its charms derive more from familiarity than from any genuine sense of terror. Which is good news for this movie, because for all The Nun’s pedigree and in-your-face advertising, it’s just not very scary. It hits its genre beats with workmanlike precision, but rarely takes full advantage of them. Director Corin Hardy is wise enough to obscure the titular twisted sister for a good chunk of the movie, but the scares tend to falter when she’s absent. By its climactic showdown, the movie abandons all horror pretenses and morphs into pure effects-driven spectacle in a sequence that is, to be fair, preposterously entertaining.
Uninterested in anything so stuffy as spiritual examination, The Nun’s main goal is to be a fun horror movie; and on that front it (mostly) succeeds, displaying a lightness of tone that makes its scarcity of scares fairly easy to absolve. Though it lacks any high-minded aspirations, it takes full, eager advantage of its setting, from the costuming, to the set design, to the wonderfully over-the-top gothic score. These aesthetic guilty pleasures often add up to the best kind of camp: the kind that lets its heightened tone speak for itself, without ever once resorting to lame winks to the audience.
The movie’s other strongest suit is its intrepid trio of protagonists, the aforementioned devout detectives and local guide Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet). They make for better company than the boobs we’re usually stuck with in movies like this; they’re undoubtedly types, but each character serves his or her role well and the actors imbue them with what little substance they can. Bichir is hardened and world-weary, Farmiga is naïve and spunky, and Bloquet makes the most of his role as audience surrogate, earning several laughs as the voice of perfectly reasonable fear. Bichir and Farmiga get in a few zingers too, which might suck the tension out of a scarier movie but serve as a welcome tonic in this one.
In a way, The Nun is the perfect movie to kick off horror season. If it were better, it wouldn’t deserve such a premature release date, and if it were worse it wouldn’t be worth seeing at all. Instead it manages to hit that sweet spot in the middle, ably doing its job as an undemanding haunted house ride of a movie, getting a few jumps here and there but unlikely to haunt anyone except the most susceptible of moviegoers. It’s horror-lite, and though that’s not exactly an esteemed category, it’ll still hit the spot for those in the mood.