Movie Review: ‘The Nun’ converts ‘Conjuring’ series into a bad habit

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Nun' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — James Wan’s original “The Conjuring” (2013) was a modern horror gem, creeping out audiences and launching Vera Farmiga to star in TV’s “Bates Motel” (2013).

This weekend, the fifth installment arrives after “Annabelle” (2014), “The Conjuring 2” (2016) and “Annabelle: Creation” (2017), but the prequel’s casting of Farmiga’s sister is the only striking resemblance, as “The Nun” converts a once stellar franchise into a bad habit.

Set in 1952, the Vatican sends a nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), to a Gothic convent in Romania where a nun recently committed suicide. Asked to investigate mysterious occurrences involving a demonic nun (Bonnie Aarons), Irene enlists the help of a villager, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who loves reminding people he’s French Canadian, and a wise priest, Father Burke (Demián Bichir), who’s haunted by the fatal exorcism of a boy he couldn’t save.

Film buffs will instantly recognize elements of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” (1947), Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) and Richard Donner’s “The Omen” (1976). Unfortunately, those filmmakers had much better written material to work with, which is a shame because British filmmaker Corin Hardy (“The Hallow”) actually delivers a very effective — and visually dynamic — opening sequence.

This intro depicts a troubled nun standing on the edge of a window and placing a noose around her neck. She looks back to see a faded figure slowly approaching down a long, dark corridor. A crucifix slowly rotates upside-down on the wall. She prays for forgiveness and leaps, but rather than show the body fall, the camera lingers inside the tower to watch the rope slack tighten, as we slowly push in to see the demon’s face in a window reflection.

Now that is how you direct an opening scene!

Alas, if only this level of restraint continued for the rest of the movie, it might have been on its way to surprise greatness. Instead, we watch the film devolve over the course of 96 minutes into a frustrating lack of discipline and a sinking feeling that less would have been more.

Throughout Act Two, the plot becomes increasingly random, as characters routinely wander out into the woods toward their tormentors in a graveyard. Some elements are viscerally powerful — bells ringing in a cacophony of creepiness, or a victim screaming in an enclosed space that cuts to deafening silence — but the narrative reasoning is scattershot at best.

Complicating this stretch is the sudden introduction of the heroine’s supernatural visions, which aren’t properly explained. A similar problem plagued Ron Howard’s “Inferno” (2016), weakening the eventual payoff when these powers later inspire Farmiga to take her vows. Setups and payoffs are a tricky business, but if you botch the setup, the payoff falls flat.

Moreover, there are far too many grotesque jumpscares for this reviewer’s taste, sacrificing slow-burn suspense for in-your-face schlock. The parade of “gotchas” boast all the plot sense of running through a haunted house on Halloween. Sure, it’s spooky — and will certainly make you jump — but there is no real rhyme or reason as to why the jolts are occurring.

The exponential jumpscares recall the ending of Stephen King’s “It” (2017), a pleasantly surprising remake that succeeded during its first two-thirds before becoming too repetitive in the final third. Thus, it’s no surprise that both “It” and “The Nun” are written by the same screenwriter, Gary Dauberman, who also wrote “Annabelle” and “Annabelle: Creation.”

The witty child banter in “It” proves that Dauberman can clearly do better than the dialogue in “The Nun,” as characters repeatedly say, “You know, I’ve come to believe this place is unholy.” Ya think?!? By the fifth or sixth time, you’ll start to laugh, unsure whether to take it seriously.

There’s a particular scene where Frenchie rips a giant cross out of the cemetery for protection (Here’s to you, Benjamin Braddock) and carries it into the bar (Did you hear the one about the priest, the villager and the nun who walk into a bar?). It’s an odd cross to bear, mixing comic relief with horror. At one point, the priest mutters, “Christ,” to which Frenchie asks, “Wait, Jesus Christ?” No, dummy, the other Christ. At least you’ll laugh when he quips, “Holy s**t.”

Thankfully, the film closes with a few redeeming qualities, as the heroine finds a creative way to vanquish the villain and set up a clever wraparound ending that ties into the 2013 original. However, by then it’s too little too late, as audiences have already mentally checked out.

If you really want to freak out on the same subject matter, check out Netflix’s recent true-crime documentary “The Keepers” (2017), chronicling the mysterious disappearance of a nun in Baltimore in 1969. That series is far more disturbing than “The Nun,” which for a genre that once proclaimed, “The power of Christ compels you,” is ironically more silly than compelling.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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