I don’t understand the appeal of Conjuring Universe films that stray from the characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren. New Line has tried expanding the mythology with two Annabelle spin-offs and a third in production. The first ended up being critically panned, although the second, a prequel, did fairly well. But on the whole, they seem completely unnecessary and rote. I’m happy to go along with the crowd and say that James Wan hit his stride with the main Conjuring films and knows how to create visually frightening antagonists. They may not reach exceptional levels, but they’re impressive and effective. The spinoff films (which aren’t directed by Wan, which explains a lot), are a disappointment, and I imagine they can’t get any worse than The Nun.
One of the most glaring problems is the setting. While taking place in the 1950s, the actual Romanian town that holds the convent apparently rejects all technology, where the citizens drive horse and buggies and dress like english serfs. The location feels more like the 1800s, and unfortunate anachronisms, such as bells on tombstones and dim wooden taverns with lanterns, only reinforce this contradictory sense of time. This doesn’t seem like a deliberate attempt to disorient the viewer, either. As far as I can tell, the choice to explicitly state the 50s as the given era allowed them to include a ludicrous—teetering on absurd—development about how the demon nun came to haunt the convent: the general evil which lingered around the area in the aftermath of WWII. At the same time, they wanted a spooky, pre-industrial setting because, you know, nuns and shit.
Taissa Farmiga plays a novitiate sent to a haunted Romanian convent to investigate a recent nun’s suicide. Alongside her are stoic priest Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and inappropriately-placed-comic-relief Frenchy (Jonas Bloquet). Taissa Farmiga is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren in the proper Conjuring movies, which strikes one as a playful bit of casting. Unfortunately, as talented as the younger Farmiga has shown herself to be in other projects, she’s basically terrible here. Her attempt at a mid 20th century cadence and humble, servile demeanor hit the level of a high school performance of The Crucible. Bichir tries his best, but ultimately can only stumble around looking confused, probably because his character has almost nothing to do and repeatedly makes boneheaded decisions. It’s as if the unsure expression his character has throughout the film is really just Bichir straining to comprehend the purpose of his scenes.
The set design looks great, but the outside shots of the convent show it to be unbelievably big, with gigantic Game of Thrones wall facades and spiky arches from Sauron’s castle. A confused tone muddles the entire trajectory of the film, sometimes derailing the mood of an entire scene with a single inappropriate trumpet fanfare or one-liner. The second act drags on way too long, and offers no plot progression or sufficient worldbuilding, other than vaguely defined religious rituals, convent history, and aggravatingly overdone jump scares and camera tricks. That thing where something spooky stands in the background and the camera pans away with a character, and then pans back, they probably use at least ten times.
But I think the biggest problem is in concept. The Nun and Annabelle work best as featured attractions in a more mature, classically styled horror film. And it doesn’t help that both of these films, while being based off of James Wan’s characters, fail to replicate his vision. | Nic Champion