Well, it’s not the worst horror movie ever. Universes are popping up everywhere, and why should The Conjuring not follow in suit? Based on the real-life paranormal work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, there is certainly enough material from which to build a universe; but if this is a universe and the movies are planets, then perhaps The Nun will go by way of Pluto. Sometimes it’s included, sometimes it’s not. One may even go so far as to say that The Nun is truly unholy–an unholy hot mess of a movie. That’s not to say that it isn’t fun to watch. Like with horror movies, in general, it is a fun watch with a large group of people all reacting at the same time. While recent horror films focus on creating an atmosphere of dread and developing characters that the audience cares about, and then crafting twisted moments of terror such as A Quiet Place or Hereditary, this movie follows bad horror movie tropes that may aid in getting you to jump here and there, but ultimately fail at delivering anything truly scary or horrific. With German expressionism being at the very roots of the American horror film, as seen in Nosferatu, Phantom of the Opera, and Dracula, The Nun seems like such a missed opportunity to produce a terrifying gothic horror movie.
When a nun at a cloistered abby in the hills of Romania is discovered as having committed suicide by hanging, the Vatican calls upon the service of Father Burke (Birchir) to investigate the occurrence to determine if there is any unholy work at play. Under the advisement of the Vatican, Father Burke is asked to work with Irene, a young nun from a Catholic school because she has the gift of visions that may aid in their mission. Although Irene has yet to take her final vows, she agrees to accompany Father Burke to Romania to uncover why one of her sisters would commit suicide. Father Burke and Sister Irene soon discover that a most unholy spirit lives within the castle, and that the abby’s convent of nuns were protecting the world against a malevolent demon who must be sent back to the depths of hell.
Like many of you, I too was initially optimistic for this origin story as the glimpses of The Nun in the Conjuring movies are terrifying. Partly, these glimpses are creepy because we see very little of the nun. The demon nun suffers from some of the same problems that are witnessed in the Insidious movies. When the demon was shadowed, barely visible–but just enough to frighten you–he was scary; but then he turns into Darth Maul and loses that level of fright he had through most of the first movie. Simply stated, we saw too much of him. To the point that he almost became a parody of his former self. Likewise, the nun’s exaggerated features, yellow eyes, and jagged teeth quickly transition from scary to almost funny. Funny in that it felt campy or over the top. Director Corin Hardy obviously does not know the power of subtlety. Diegetically, the plot of The Nun plays out as incredibly predictable. The nun or another ghoulish apparition appears right when and where you expect it to happen. No surprises here. In an era that arthouse horror is attracting mainstream audiences–and making bank at the box office–it’s quite upsetting that a movie that had the setting and characters for arthouse horror decided to go the “paint by the numbers” route instead of joining other trailblazers.
A grossly underused setting. The movie begins in candle-lit hallways in a medieval castle in the foggy hills of Romania. Visually, the movie appeared to be setting up a story and setting that would have that beautifully dark gothic feel and look; however, it quickly turns into another generic haunted house movie. We begin with an incredibly effective foreboding atmosphere complete with everything you want to see in a gothic horror film, then scrap it for unimaginative rooms and cheap exploitation. Gothic horror films possessed an ability to depict terrifying stories with minimal dialogue. Dialogue was an extension of the plot; it did not force the plot. The Nun had all the right elements for a frightening horror film but failed to deliver the Conjuring universe movie we wanted or expected. It’s like, you can buy all the ingredients to make an exquisitely delicious dish you had at a French restaurant; but if you do not know or choose to ignore the proper amounts and order of the ingredients, then your dish will most likely fail to meet your expectations. Moreover, there were many moments that felt gimmicky, felt forced.
With such an amazing setting, the german expressionistic and gothic roots should have ben channeled more effectively. Whether you are familiar with the term or not, you are likely familiar with what it looks like–especially if you are a horror junkie like myself. The antithesis of French impressionism (art displaying authentic life), German expressionism sought to reflect real life but through metaphor, allegory, and symbolism. An indirect representation of observations of real-life. Expressionism allows the filmmaker to visually explore themes such as death, life, sex, institutions, religion, and more. The beauty is its ability to provide social commentary without being overt. Examples of German expressionism can be found in older films such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet, Dr. Caligari, mid-century films like Psycho and The Exorcist, but also found in newer films such as Batman Returns and Crimson Peak. Mostly associated with film noir, german expressionism is foundational to the looks and feel of horror films as well. Visually, German expressionism is characterized by exaggerated architecture, shadows, twisted landscapes, and sharp edges. The very look of it is creepy. German expressionism takes many visual queues from gothic architecture. It’s that gothic looks and feel that was mostly ignored in the setting and actions of The Nun even though it was a perfect candidate for it.
This movie will undoubtedly do well at the box office over the next couple of weekends as even “ehh” horror is bankable. Before I allow myself to get too discouraged, I look to how the sequel to Annabelle was fantastic after the first installment was a let down. If Annabelle Creation can improve upon its predecessor, then the forthcoming Nun sequel can do the same thing under the right direction with the right screenplay.