The Nun is trash and I love it.
There’s a scene where a man gets spooked by a ghost he’s been chasing through a graveyard, he trips and fall backwards into a casket that’s resting in an already opened grave, the lid slams shut over him. Then the camera slowly pans up to reveal that the headstone has the character’s name already engraved on it.
There’s a scene where the handsome French (Canadian) woodsman — played by authentically Belgian actor Jonas Bloquet who was so great last year in Elle, yet whose accent here shifts wildly throughout — encounters one of the demonic nuns in the woods surrounding the cursed abbey. Upon his escape he wrests a comically oversized cross from the ground and awkwardly juggles carrying it, his lantern and axe as he ambles off at a gentle pace.
Nobody can run in the forest though, seemingly the crew had about a half-acre of very sparsely wooded land to transform into Romanian wilderness. They choose to achieve this effect by pumping the area full of fog and so aggressively backlighting every shot that visibility falls off within feet of the characters. An aesthetic sensibility more in line with the repetitive and hastily produced backdrops of the 1960s episodes of Scooby Doo than any modern horror movie.
The whole thing is prime Scooby though, the spooky abbey that the film mostly takes place in has apparently been repurposed from a decrepit mansion that harbours a mysterious secret in the basement. Every location is almost comically overdesigned, the forest is littered with literal hundreds of crosses driven into the ground. The building itself is perched atop a precarious cliff edge. The door to enter the building opens onto a downward flight of stairs to suggest that our characters are literally entering hell and there’s oh so many stained glass windows that shine ominous blood red light onto the proceedings.
It is the 1950s and a nun has been found hanged at the convent. Rome has sent a gravel voiced and world weary exorcist (Demien Bichir) and a young noviciate (Taissa Farmiga) to make sure everything is legit. When they arrive the abbess is waiting to receive them. She sits motionless in a spooky chair with its back to the door and does not respond when they shout for attention. After giving the audience a fright she assures them that everything is fine in a Margaret Hamilton Wicked Witch of the West voice.
The place is transparently diseased. These characters aren’t even the sorts of sceptics one may expect to approach such a scene with frivolity. It’s about the point, on their first night in the convent, when he sees a vision of this possessed child he was previously unable to save and she sees a moving shadow cross a wall, manifest itself in a mirror, only for the real ghost nun to appear behind her, scream and cause the mirror to shatter, that they should think about performing some sort of ritual.
They don’t though. These characters are pure blithe idiots. You remember Max von Sydow in The Exorcist? How he ingrained his stern and patrician character with a warmth and empathy for those he had to minister to? Bichir is straight line gruff throughout. He wears what is basically a cowboy hat as he struts around, less spiritual peacekeeper than the Catholic Church’s no. 1 fixer.
The French(Canadian, it’s a whole bit)man is mostly characterised by being super thirsty for nuns and the riding tension is on the question, is the young sister kinda into it? Aside from that Farmiga gets nothing. She can scream alright and act credulous, but compared to The Conjuring franchise that this film span off of, as a woman she is greatly underserved.
I’m not saying that the evil nun herself is the best developed character of the piece, but when you look at the competition she’s put up against, it’s not that hard to start rooting for her just a little. She’s always been the underdog anyway. Originally added to The Conjuring 2 in reshoots she become popular enough to get her own movie, nobody’s watching this because they care about the lives of the people involved. They just want to see a powerful, independent woman, who has escaped the patriarchal control of a religion she no longer feels connected to, kick some ass.
Boy, does she. The climax is all rather low rent in a way that is perfectly in keeping with the rest of the joint. It steals an Indiana Jones gag to resolve one plot wrinkle and then they descend to the catacombs to cut off the disease at its source. They immediately split up to look for clues and are hounded by ‘faceless’ nuns, who move and look like a pack of uncompelled folks in fancy dress with black morph suit masks on under their habits.
The endings of these things are always disappointing, being prequels sorta robs them of their suspense and this one in particular doesn’t even have the care to resolve any of the characters’ stories interestingly. Corin Hardy has made a spectacularly bad film here, yet one that is buoyed by the sublime ridiculousness with which it thinks to generate atmosphere, and a particularly memorable villain.
I think in my review of Annabelle: Creation I noted that New Line were basically building a franchise solely off of James Wan being a really great director, cashing in on that hype when every cheap and substandard spin off is rushed out of the door. I think he’s only currently attached to produce The Conjuring 3 which, given now Annabelle has run its course, will have to introduce at least one iconic new villain. Let’s hope it’s something good.
As I said at the start, this movie is trash and I love it. The schlock and camp are perfect, I just can’t shake the feeling that they are that way almost entirely by accident. Next time, and judging by the box office there almost definitely will be a next time, let’s give this feminist icon a filmmaker worthy of her.
The Nun is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.