Since the first installment of the now highly successful “The Conjuring” horror-film franchise appeared in 2013, little has changed for the devil. No new developments. No new friends. Satan’s latest status update: “Out here lookin’ for another person to possess, wya?”
Director Corin Hardy has taken the reins of the fifth addition to the series, loosely based on the real-life paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren. “The Nun,” a spin-off of the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons reprising her role), that made its iconic and terrifying debut in “The Conjuring 2,” serves as the prequel to the entire franchise. Audiences are primed to believe that some light will be shed on the whys and hows of the demon that haunts those unfortunate families in the previous films.
But within the film’s 96 minutes, “The Nun” adds nothing new or compelling to the universe audiences have dared to explore. And the usual tricks that have worked well in the past have either been abandoned or are simply outplayed.
We are far from the pretense of reality. Part of the fascination with “The Conjuring” and its sequel was its supposed basis in reality — reminding us regularly that these stories are based on the true case files of the Warrens. If it was thought-provoking to anyone the first time around, the faith-based didacticism is now utterly unconvincing. But most critically, “The Nun” fails to deliver the same injection of unalloyed thrill that the previous “The Conjuring” films provided.
Set in 1952 Romania, a brooding priest, Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a prescient Catholic novitiate who has yet to take her vows, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a local villager, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), enter the clearly haunted Cârța Monastery to investigate the death of a nun. The essential premise sounds like the beginning of a twisted version of a joke we’ve heard many times before.
The familiar signs of disturbances ensue — objects move on their own, someone has a bad feeling about this, and a mysterious abbess directly tells the protagonists to leave. Despite a formulaic approach, the varying creators of the franchise have managed to deliver some effective jolts each time. Even in moments when we can likely expect a scare, bracing ourselves feels fruitless.
What we and the heroes of the journey are unaware of, however, until an hour or so into the film, is what exactly the characters hope to achieve in their investigation –– and what the titular nun has to do with it all. It’s a series of one-jump scares with little revelation — as usual, the devil just needs a home — and a predictable end.
“The Nun” follows similar principles to those of the previous films. For example, the traditional tools and methods of defeating the devil — relics, holy water and prayer — not only can’t protect you, but they also just might hurt you. “There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for action,” advises Father Burke.
But again, we only flirt with this questioning of conventional wisdom before the film later contradicts itself. Holy objects might not work, but the holiest of “shit” will. Only until the next sequel.
Screenwriter Gary Dauberman and the previous writers, directors and producers of the “The Conjuring” franchise evidently have little intention of reinventing the structure of the demonic possession film. They have sunk into the old formula and remained comfortable with adding a few twists and increasingly elaborate set pieces to efficiently recreate the results of the first four films.
Therein lies the tragedy of this one-of-a-kind series. With the healthy stream of box-office revenue each film consistently brings, what incentive would the creators of this cinematic universe have to veer into unknown narratives, approach relevant and challenging questions or even thrill us in an original way?
“The Nun” proves one thing for sure. We’ll be going on the same formulaic ride for quite a while.
“The Nun” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.