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Non-Review Review: The Nun

Nobody really talks about how strange The Conjuring is.

James Wan has effectively managed to fashion Hollywood’s second most successful shared universe from a variety of old-fashioned horror tropes stitched together with a more modern blockbuster aesthetic. The films in franchise – which include The Conjuring 2, Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation – are remarkable because they seem like such a strange basis for a twenty-first century blockbuster franchise. They are all period piece jump-scare driven retro jorror movies that are produced with a very slick and modern sensibility.

Bad habits.

The Nun is another worthy (and interesting) addition to that canon. As with the other films in the series, its basic structure wields more modern storytelling and filmmaking techniques to a more classic horror tone. As with the other films, the production team also understand the appeal of a certain level of variety within that familiar template. The Conjuring was a throwback to beloved seventies haunted house films, Annabelle set its horror against the backdrop of the sixties, The Conjuring 2 moved to England and Annabelle: Creation unfolded against the backdrop of rural America.

The Nun evokes gothic horror. Set in a creepy abbey in Romania during the fifties, following an investigator dispatched from the Vatican to investigate the suicide of a young nun, The Nun thrives in this environment with this iconography. The Nun falters a little bit in its storytelling, especially its exposition, and it stumbles a little bit when it comes to building a climax that works as both an action film and as a horror. However, the film is canny enough in its choice of setting and imagery that it never completely comes apart.

Who goes stair?

The opening sequence of The Nun lays its cards on the table. Two nuns skulk through a creepy old gothic castle, one that predates the country in which it exists. The hall is lit only by candles, the way marked with almost comically large crosses. Somewhat inexplicably, given that the scene unfolds inside a castle, there is a thick layer of fog on the ground through which the nuns seem to glide. Those opening few minutes very effectively set a tone, laying out a stall for the next ninety-six minutes.

There is undeniably something a little cheesy in this set-up. “Romania in the fifties” feels more like a suggestion shouted at an improv night than anything that actually merited any research. The Nun unfolds in sprawling creepy forests, graveyards that look like they might have plucked from the imagination of Robert Wiene, and the ruins of old castles that hide unspeakable secrets. It is a world that exists in the collective western subconscious, the dream space inhabited by mad scientists like Victor Frankenstein or monsters like Count Dracula.

The Nun has little interest in what Romania was really like during the fifties. There is no discussion of the Communist regime or the Soviet occupation, nor is there any exploration of the religious persecution that Catholics would likely have experienced under Marxist–Leninist atheism. These details might simmer slightly in the background of the film, playing out in the abstract or through implication. After all, this is a story about a group of devote believers who find themselves besieged by a monstrous force. However, the real world never intrudes into the reality of The Nun. Even references to “the War” are suitably vague.

There is something strangely appealing in this, with much of The Nun recalling the sort of studio-set gothic horror of the fifties and sixties. There are hanging dead bodies, characters who are buried alive, giant crosses that jut out of the landscape at odd an uncomfortable angles. There are billowing white sheets that might hide some monstrous horror, strange cracks in and scratches stone walls, and shadows that flicker in the candle light. One need not ask who lights all of those candles, especially when they seem to blow out so easily; one might as well ask why there is so much fog in the area.

“Yeah, this looks about right.”

The Nun works best in its early stages, built around a collection of vaguely familiar iconography that is relatively under-explored in contemporary horror cinema. Again, the seventies are a major influence here. Whenever Father Burke approaches or enters a doorway, the film (rightfully) evokes The Exorcist, another story of a priest on his way to confront an unspeakable evil. Watching The Nun, it seems like a significant portion of Farther Burke’s time is spent entering creepy spaces with varying degrees of trepidation.

The Nun commits to its aesthetic with an endearing energy, as if the production team settled on a mood that they wanted to set and so decided to utilise it as effectively as possible within the time allowed. Running a little over an hour and half, The Nun manages to blitz its way through various combinations of obligatory religion-themed scares; being buried alive, a creepy confessional, a crying statue, a botched exorcism, a holy relic, a portcullis, an empty habit standing under its own power, the rumble of distant thunder on a dark night, a secret room that exists beyond the remit of the Almighty.

Having Nun of it.

Indeed, The Nun arguably works best in terms of mood and style. There is a recurring and unspoken anxiety about the Catholic Church running through The Nun that seems to hint at uncertainties that pervade the institution even today. In the world of The Nun, the Catholic Church is portrayed as a secretive and conspiratorial institution. “There is something you are not telling me,” Father Burke remarks to his superiors when assigned the case. Asked why he would make such an assumption, he replies, “Because this is the Vatican.”

Like most horror films picking at a scab, The Nun never explicitly states anything, but understands enough to suggest and imply. Father Burke is a priest who spends most of the film haunted by a young boy. The religious abbey is resented by the locals, who blame it for the evils befalling their community. One local escorts Father Burke and his young ward to the abbey, noting the crucifixes arrayed around the boundaries of the old castle. “All these crucifixes keep the evil in, not out,” he explains. Sure enough, it is eventually revealed that something rotten sits at the foundation of this venerable institution.

“We want to make sure that the Church dots all its “i”s and crosses all its… well…”

While The Nun works well in terms of general mood and ambiance, its nostalgic aesthetic lending the film an old-world charm, it struggles in terms of storytelling. As with the other films related to The Conjuring, The Nun is a curious hybrid of retro horror mood with modern blockbuster storytelling. It is a curious hybrid, if only because these films exist with a level of budget and polish that is often lacking from many contemporary low budget horrors like It Follows or Don’t Breathe or Strangers: Prey at Night.

The Nun uses the same sort of digital trickery and computer-generated special effects that define so many contemporary blockbusters, but in a way that is interesting and revealing. The uncanny effect of such imagery is a desired effect, most notably in the depiction of things that cannot possibly exist. Characters appear and disappear in the middle of single long-takes, notably when the camera is moving through spaces that could not hide them without digital trickery. Shadows morph into reflections in a way that defy physics. A grave can be dug and filled in the space of a single five-second pan.

Pray at night…

It is a very clever use of this sort of technology, and it might be the most interesting legacy of The Conjuring, the manner in which the films user modern cinematic tools like digital cinematography and computer-generated imagery to emulate (and amplify) more traditional cinematic scares. It is intriguing to think about. Many of these classic horror tropes – the figure hiding in plain sight, the use of a camera move to conceal a switch – were developed as a result of technical limitations of working in film. It is interesting to see the application of more advanced (and flexible) technology to mimic those familiar beats.

At the same time, The Nun struggles to integrate its tone with the demands of modern blockbuster storytelling. This is most obvious at the climax of the film, when the movie devolves into a more traditional action movie throwdown with the eponymous monstrosity. At one point, the creature even boasts to its prey like a mid-tier comic book supervillain, “You should have escaped while you had the chance.” Beats that like that feel underwhelming in the context of what had been a rich old-school horror, particularly one that devolves into something resembling the climax of Inferno.

Gotta have faith.

Similarly, The Nun struggles a bit with its actual storytelling. Exposition is a difficult art, particularly in genre films and especially in horror cinema. Slowing down the action (and the scares) in order to bring the audience up to speed is always a risky gambit, particularly when these updates can sound like summaries of Wikipedia articles. The Nun has a lot of back story to articulate, particularly when it comes to explaining the origin of the evil that has taken root and the circumstances that led to this particular crisis.

The Nun seems to understand the dangers of drifting away from the gothic tone and the rising dread of the primary narrative, so this back story is reduced to a series of bite-sized chunks. Ironically, this only makes the exposition more jarring, feeling like the bullet-point summary of a horror story rather than something genuinely unsettling. This is a shame, given the obvious influence of Gilles de Rais on that back story. This is to say nothing of one of the most jarring cuts in the exposition, which effectively amounts to, “… and then the Second World War happened.”

Guiding light.

There are even moments when the tone of the film brushes up against the expectations of modern blockbuster form. This is most obvious with the film’s sense of humour. The Nun doesn’t lean as heavily into ironic self-aware humour as films like Avengers: Infinity War, but it also demonstrates the same reluctance to take itself entirely seriously that defines so much of contemporary blockbuster cinema. There are moments when it seems like The Nun isn’t sure how committed it is to its dark tone and gothic sensibility.

There is a recurring joke about how villagers spit at even the mention of the abbey, which recalls the sound of horses neighing in at the mention of Frau Blucher’s name in Young Frankenstein. A tense threatening sequence ends with a character appropriating a comically-oversized crucifix to protect himself. Confronted with a relic, he observes, “Holy sh!t.” Father Burke pauses only briefly before he responds, “The holiest.” There is a sense of wry irony that runs through The Nun, threading a very fine line between acknowledging that familiar nature of the set-up and undercutting any dramatic tension.

Like The Conjuring 2 before it, the central tension within The Nun concerns that delicate balance between the expectations of modern blockbuster storytelling and the familiar rhythms of classic horror movie storytelling. It is a bizarre cocktail, to the point that it seems surreal to acknowledge these films as a blockbuster franchise. The Nun doesn’t always get the balance entirely right, feeling a little too formulaic, a little to light on its feet and a little too rushed at certain points. However, it works well enough to create a genuinely interesting and engaging hybrid.

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