Horror movies have been doing cinematic universes before they were fashionable. Superheroes may corner the market now, but from the 1980s to the early 2000s, horror films were getting 12 sequels and pitting their protagonists against each other in crossover events. “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Alien vs. Predator” were having civil wars before it was cool. The “Conjuring” universe is more carefully curated than those petty affairs, but its newest addition ‘The Nun” is probably the closest the franchise will come to not taking itself seriously.
“The Nun” is the prequel to the sequel of “The Conjuring”, as opposed to the “Annabelle” spinoff series, which are sequels to the original “Conjuring”—if you haven’t figured out the formula yet, it’s that every scary demon in the main series gets its own movie. This one’s about a creepy nun, so we must get thee to a nunnery. We’re whisked all the way back to the Cârța Monastery in 1952, in the land of southern Transylvania—but worry not, there are no vampires in sight.
There are some zombie nuns, though. The demonic threats in the monastery tend to be more fun than scary. This isn’t an accident: “The Nun” echoes the tone of 50s horror movies, opting for something more campy than its “Conjuring” sisters. It’s an inch closer to the slapstick horror of “Evil Dead II” than the rest of the franchise. This haunting has a sense of humor, and in its best moments, “The Nun” leans into that brand of silliness.
Too bad there’s not enough of it. “The Nun” has more in common with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, in that it loses the magic of what came before and increasingly resembles an indoor ride at a theme park. “The Nun” has little to offer stylistically: it mimics the masterful control of framing and timing that James Wan brought to the “Conjuring” movies, but with a second-rate quality that doesn’t generate as much tension. It even lacks the terrifying chiaroscuro lighting that powered “Annabelle: Creation”. There are just camera tricks that rarely go wide enough to let your eyes dart around the frame, forcing you to focus on jump scare after jump scare. It’s an amusement ride ferrying you between inorganic attractions.
Its characters are animatronic, rigid and lacking personality beyond their surface level descriptions. There’s a brave priest, a devout nun, a creep whose gross flirtations are mistaken for comic relief—the usual. They’re different enough to enjoy watching for an hour or so, but nowhere near as compelling as the family-driven Ed and Lorraine Warren. Taissa Farmiga’s wide-eyed performance is the most recognizably human element. Bonnie Aarons, who has been lurking behind corners to frighten people since “Mulholland Drive”, is deliciously inhuman as the demonic nun.
The film does succeed in its production design: Romanian architecture is a fitting backdrop for a haunting, and horror cinematographer Maxime Alexandre gets to twist the monastery’s corridors in unsettling ways. But otherwise, “The Nun” is fairly by the numbers, and not all that scary. This entry in the “Conjuring” universe is more product than poltergeist.