The Reel Review: The Nun Oozes Atmosphere, But Cannot Deliver On Fright

Halloween is getting closer, which means a new glut of horror movies are waiting in the wings to take over the box office and capitalize on the spooky season. One that just couldn’t wait to get out of the gate is The Nun, the latest prequel in the extended universe set up by The Conjuring. Originally centered around the real-life paranormal investigators who dealt with the famous Amityville case, each movie in the series has distanced itself further and further from the idea that we are watching a dramatization of real events. Though The Nun begins with a stern warning that the story is based on real accounts, it is the installment most divorced from reality yet, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Instead of Ed and Lorraine Warren, we follow the Vatican’s pet paranormal investigator Father Burke, along with a vision-having nun-to-be called Irene, and a tousled French-Canadian bad boy appropriately named Frenchie. The former two have been called to investigate the suicide of a nun in a remote Romanian abbey, the body of which was found by the latter, in order to determine if the place is still holy. However, as the characters climb the steep hill, round the corner and catch their first glance of the place, it’s clear to those watching that it probably never was.

Right from the beginning, it is atmosphere that sets The Nun apart. Fog wreathes the graveyard, which is laden with a jumble of haphazard wooden crosses and tombstones adorned with bells. The bells exist so those accidentally buried alive can alert those around them and be let out, while the crosses were the idea of the villagers below, in order to keep some terrible evil in. Out front of the abbey where the nun was found, the stone steps are slick with blood that never dries, blood that seems only to increase in volume as the situation grows more dire. The interior of the abbey is the same mix of beauty and discomfort; angelic iconography is everywhere but is fighting a losing battle with the shadows on the wall, and the main chapel is gorgeously ornate while the nuns’ quarters are bare.

More a slow burn Gothic affair than your typical supernatural jump scare fest, the film is at its strongest when it allows itself to be introspective, stretching out each moment of silent tension to almost agonizing lengths. The contrast of the black-clad nuns of the abbey with Irene’s own pure white garb might be a touch on the nose as far as symbolism goes, but it makes for some masterful shots, which would not be out of place in a line-up of the most beautiful shots in horror history. Likewise, the repetition of motifs like the first sister’s suicide and the appearance of the film’s Mother Superior being wrenched away into the darkness are sure to stay with you long after the theater lights have come up.  

Where the film lets itself down is in its more Hollywood moments. Some of the fast-paced scenes work well, Father Burke’s buried alive scene evokes the kind of visceral and instinctive terror that is often hard to find in films with paranormal subject matter. Frenchie also has a terrifying encounter in the graveyard:, first stalking and then being stalked by a nun (not the nun, but another) in a sequence that starts subtle but soon ramps all the way up. The chase scene that ensures is so evocative of Gothic cinema classics that all manner of sins have to be forgiven, including the fact that Frenchie walks out into the woods after the spirit, despite knowing full well the place is haunted and wanting to get out of there.

With that said, any urgency the film manages to conjure (haha) up is to its detriment. The third act simultaneously drags and feels rushed along, due to it oscillating between fast-paced CGI chase scenes culminating in jump scares, and long sequences where nothing much happens beyond progressing to the end of a hallway. This is standard fare as far as Hollywood horror goes, but it feels like a cheap tactic compared to the genuine unease in first two thirds of the film. Not to mention that the finale is a protracted fight scene with The Nun, who appears to have no motivation beyond possession and no levels beyond screaming very loudly head on at the camera. Said fight is resolved in the silliest way possible, with an artifact that allows Irene to be so overpowered it removes all stakes that the film has so painfully built up.

In short, The Nun is one of the more visually stunning Conjuring movies, and has a cast more likable and believable than any that came before. It’s worth the price of admission for a handful of shots alone, and the droning prayer, oppressive hallways and grandiose themes make it a truly enjoyable watch. Unfortunately, it feels pulled between the lush Gothic nightmare the director wants to make and the realist paranormal horror that its Conjuring umbrella necessitates it must be. This tension splits the movie straight down the middle and will no doubt split movie-goers the same way. There’s a great film in there somewhere, but the true villain is the franchise that sucked much of its originality away, before leaving it unable to escape its clutches.

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