Clichés prove to be a bad habit in The Nun, a monastic fifth entry in The Conjuring franchise. As a serviceable horror, the film works competently but does so by following a well-furrowed route that can led only to genre dissatisfaction.
Set in 1952, The Nun chronologically pre-dates all in the franchise to-date and seems to serve purely as a cash-in origins story for the yellow-eyed, eye-shadow heavy demonic sister who first appeared as a cameo in The Conjuring 2. The character – incongruously named Valak after a devil child from 17th-century spell book The Lesser Key of Solomon – was first introduced as a cheap, non-CGI scare but now apparently has a Spectre-level function in tying the Conjuring films together. In this standalone film, we learn of how she (…he or it) first entered the mortal world.
Novel that the concept of a shared cinematic world of horror just about remains – no thanks to Universal’s floundering Dark Universe – The Conjuring franchise increasingly doesn’t feel like the one to do it justice. For all the fake fog in Romania, The Nun manages only to join the Annabelle films as one more derivative spin-off from James Wan’s superior Conjuring duo. Bookending The Nun’s central concerns are flashback inserts from earlier films in the series. If this gives those in the know some satisfaction that Wan knows what he’s doing, others will be left baffled.
Outwit this confusing world-building is the story of a gothic Romanian abbey – and Hogwarts lookalike – that is said to be possessed by the devil. When news of a nun’s suicide at the abbey reaches the Vatican, ghost-busting priest Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and noviciate nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, sister of The Conjuring’s Vera) are sent to investigate. On the site, they meet dashing – and doesn’t he know it – French-Canadian Maurice (a winning Jonas Bloquet) and learn why it is that the locals of a nearby village point blanc refuse to go anywhere near the abbey.
The film comes from director Corin Hardy, with a script by Annabelle and It co-writer Gary Dauberman, who constructed the story here with Wan himself. Considering all the potential plots that could have been selected for The Nun, it is a withering disappointment to find the pair opting for the path of least resistance. Framing Valak (Bonnie Aarons) as a no-motivation ‘Woman in Black’, the film does little more than offer audiences a maudlin, misty atmosphere and regulation sequence of jump-scares.
Every obvious idea for abbey-based horror is used here, from the reversed crucifixes, spontaneously extinguishing candles, right through to the need for a dozen exorcisms. There’s even room for a demonic child to show up and vanish with only minor fanfare. It’s all painstakingly straightforward and Hardy never entirely capitalises on the potential for frights in the uncertainty of which black habit is Valek. No prizes for guessing which is the possessed nun, she might as well be wearing a badge.
As two nuns enter the abbey, at the very start of the film, they encounter a door inscribed with the epitaph: ‘God ends here’. So did my patience.