The Conjuring (2013) was the little haunted-house movie that could. Besides a successful sequel, Warner Bros.' debatably fact-based fright flick has already spawned two films devoted to the demonic doll from its teaser (Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation). When a demonic nun had a seemingly extraneous subplot in The Conjuring 2, like a superhero popping up in the stinger of a Marvel movie, it was all too clear another spin-off was in the works.
Sure enough, now we get to learn all about The Nun, which last weekend surpassed the box-office take of any other film in the franchise. If only she were more interesting.
Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) disregards the No. 1 rule of effective scary movies (including both Conjurings): Pace yourself and build slowly. Starting and continuing with the mayhem turned up to 11 and plausibility near zero, The Nun offers some campy pleasures for those who like their horror hokey. There's a gooey dose of gore, too, unusual in the Conjuring universe. But actual fear? Not unless you have a phobic reaction to Catholic paraphernalia.
There's no shortage of that at Cârta Monastery, a medieval stronghold towering above Romania's forested desolation as only CG creations can. It's 1952, and the suicide of a young nun there has attracted the Vatican's attention.
Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is dispatched to investigate, with the help of perky novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga). He performs exorcisms; she sees visions and lectures kids on the compatibility of Charles Darwin and the Bible. They could have been the Vatican's version of Mulder and Scully. But the script by Gary Dauberman (It) fails to supply this pair with witty banter, philosophical argument or much of anything resembling detective work.
That's because the Nun (Bonnie Aarons) isn't the kind of specter you need to hunt down; she's all too happy to lure her visitors into a graveyard, bury them alive and ambush them in the coffin. Stuff like this happens early and often enough to eliminate any form of suspense. In its place, The Nun offers a running joke at its protagonists' expense: Every few scenes, after some new, unambiguous attack by a ghoulish manifestation, the priest or the novice remarks innocently that something appears to be amiss at this abbey.
By the time Sister Irene tentatively suggests, "This place is no longer holy," any sensible person would already have fled and summoned an army of Vatican reinforcements. A few lines later, when the pair's comic-relief sidekick (Jonas Bloquet) notes, "That felt like an emergency," we know the film is highlighting its own absurdity on purpose. If only we knew what that purpose was.
Visually, the Nun herself has a silent-film panache that looks cool from a distance but silly up close. The abbey's medieval bric-a-brac and stagy lighting rouse fond memories of Hammer horror films. Still, Hardy only evokes genuine dread in a scene where he uses a simple shadow play to tease the possibility of an unseen presence.
It's not always true that things unseen or half-seen are scarier than things seen; some horror films, such as the Evil Dead series, dispense with the peek-a-boo aesthetic to great effect. But The Nun is no Evil Dead, either in its horror or in its fitful attempts at humor. It's a slapped-together, poorly written spin-off that in no way approaches the serviceable scares of its predecessors. Given its stunning success, though, expect to see this sinister sister back in the habit before long.