I find it somehow reassuring that The Conjuring universe keeps ticking along. In an era where ‘cinematic universe’ is synonymous with action and superhero movies, it’s nice to see a different genre happily chugging along spitting out sequels and spin-offs to healthy box office returns. Sure, no-one would describe any of these films as overly ambitious – their primary and, arguably, only job is to scare suggestible teenagers out of their allowance – but it’s not like that’s any different to the slew of horror franchises that rumbled their way through the ‘80s and, to a lesser extent, ‘90s.
The Nun is the fifth film to be birthed from this franchise, after core films The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 alongside Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation. Like the Annabelle spinoffs, it’s a prequel – the series is resolutely hurtling back in time to avoid having to worry about mobile phones – taking place primarily in 1950s Romania as a priest (Demián Bichir) and novitiate nun (Taissa Farmiga) investigate a secluded castle-turned-nunnery where a nun recently committed suicide. Horror, as you would expect, ensues.
The setting of The Nun signals a departure from its predecessors, which were all variants on the haunted house sub-genre (none so successful as the first Conjuring, admittedly). These films revolved around the perversion of domesticity; each featured vulnerable young children hearing bumps in the night that were more than just their imagination. A house isn’t inherently scary; a practically-vacant ancient castle occupied by corpses and demons and flickering candlelight sure as shit is. This puts The Nun in an odd quandary, since it can’t rely on the typical rising-tension-release, day-night cycle of your traditional haunted house film; in fact, the whole film feels like you’re trekking through a specially-designed scary maze at MovieWorld’s Fright Night.
Paradoxically, this makes The Nun less scary than its Conjuring compatriots; its setting ensures its consistently creepy, but said bumps in the night aren’t as terrifying when you’re already sort of expecting a hell-beast or gnarled nun to come traipsing around the corner. And look, it doesn’t help that the screenplay is one or two drafts away from feeling like a proper story, nor that director Corin Hardy doesn’t have the same talent for constructing scary setpieces as James Wan. I suspect audiences hoping for the obligatory thrills and shrieks from the back corner of the cinema will be disappointed, and they’re within their rights to be.
While I’m not necessarily going to make the argument that The Nun is a good film – and longtime readers will be aware of my soft spot for this genre – I do think that’s its more interesting than its detractors give it credit for. By sidestepping haunted house conventions, Hardy instead drills into older horror films. Mario Bava’s heightened gothic works, or the unnerving Innocents, or even Black Narcissus! Sure, the film’s nowhere near the equal of these influences, but I admire the audacity – hell, the ambition – to stretch the boundaries of what a Conjuring spin-off can be. The attempts to evoke iconic imagery, even if they don’t always succeed. The Nun might not entirely stick the landing, but there’s enough interesting elements here that I can imagine a teenager wanting to explore gothic horror in more detail walking out of the cinema.
There’s also an interesting subtext regarding religion weaved through The Nun; sort of inevitable given the subject matter. In the previous four Conjuring films, religion acted as a kind of secret weapon for the good guys; it’s only the resolute faith of the Warrens that allowed them to defeat demons and expel evil spirits. Which is a familiar trope of the genre, but somewhat discomfiting when placed in the context of the real-life exploits of the Warrens, a pair of con artists who were anything but harmless.
In The Nun, though, religion is regarded with a great deal more scepticism. Granted, it still operates on that superpower continuum – the climax revolves prominently around a relic containing Christ’s blood – but it’s hard to swallow a message about the power of faith when the film opens with a nun tearfully committing suicide and centres heavily on the failure of the sisters’ to hold back the dark, so to speak. In a franchise that occasionally veered towards evangelism, a counterpoint is a nice thing to have.