The Nun, or The Story of How I Am Falling Out of Love with Contemporary Horror
I love horror movies. The chills in my spine, the goosebumps, the tension in my muscles, the sweat running down my neck, and the potential sleepless night following a viewing are all my expectations every time I start a horror film. Sadly, these sensations are rarely activated, largely because contemporary horror movies (I am referring to those released after 2010) have their way of disappointing me.
I am drawn to stories centered on possession and cults, particularly those developed in a small environment and stories that investigates the origin of an evil character. Some of my favorites include, The Exorcist (1973), The Others (2001), The Ring (2002), It (2017), The Conjuring Franchise (2013-), Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and most recently Hereditary (2018). These old and new classics successfully fed my need, and, on paper, The Nun (2018) checked off all boxes securing its spot on the list. Unfortunately, it failed to meet my expectations, which were earlier set by a wonderful introduction in The Conjuring II and an excruciatingly good trailer. The trailer features an emerging Nun serenaded by a religious choir, an eerie abbey with dark hallways, and a final jump-scare, which was unexpected and truly efficient.
The production team behind the movie, Peter Safran and the great horror filmmaker James Wan, who is behind Saw (2003) and its sequels, The Conjuring franchise, and Lights Out (2016), also promised a chilling experience for The Nun. So, I can’t help but ask myself, what happened? While the beginning was promising, the film lost me in its apparent forced comedy, predictable jump-scares, and absurd turn of events, such as the opening and closing of a literal gate to hell. I guess maybe the kind of horror that grabs me in cinema is the more subtle kind, and The Nun lacked subtlety.
The film recounts the backstory of the chilling demon, Valak. I was mesmerized by this character in The Conjuring II who, amongst other forms, took the shape of a Nun and was haunting ghosts, refusing their transition into the afterlife. The Nun tells us how this demon came to life. After a Duke summoned the demon from hell using dark magic, an army made of the Catholic Church accomplished in stopping Valak from entering the world. The Duke’s castle was turned into an abbey to ensure Valak’s captivity. However, during World War II, bombing opened the gate, unleashing the evil spirit. As every nun in the abbey mysteriously dies, the first scene features the suicide of what seems to be the last remaining one. Due to this tragedy, the Vatican sends a failed exorcist and a Sister who has yet to take her vows to investigate. The movie ends after the pair, assisted by a devoted French Canadian farmer, Frenchie, successfully sent the demon back to hell. Unfortunately, however, not before Valak took possession of Frenchie’s body, tying the ending of The Nun with the beginning of The Conjuring II.
In essence, the plot seemed promising and is referenced by many other classic horror films. Watching Valak haunt the hallways at night, I was thinking of the demonic presence in movies such as Suspiria, Paranormal Activity (2007) , or The Others where ghosts haunt every room of a house. I was taken back to The Exorcist, the first horror film I have ever watched, who faced a very complicated case of an almost-impossible exorcism. However, the script failed to recreate the same frightful feelings I had watching those classics. Perhaps the producers rested on the success of The Conjuring II and the audience’s positive response towards Valak, dodging an opportunity to develop a strong story. The scenes did not transition smoothly from one to the next, which confused my understanding of a timeline even though horror is typically depicted after hours and most of the shots were done in the dark. There was disappointedly a lack of suspense, with the script including predictable horror tropes that made it less effective of a fright, plus they were also done in elongated time. With the characters severely underwritten, they fashioned more as mere stereotypes, especially with the case of the French. I hate to admit it, but this movie bored me.
The most sinful act that the production team committed was to strip away the sense of fear that the Nun character is meant to convey. In the masterpiece that is The Conjuring II, the character portrayed had an ominous presence that terrified the audiences – she was only ever seen once, revealing herself at the very end of the movie, in a climactic and terrifying scene. In The Nun, Valak simply appeared too much, making her interventions predictable and non-compelling, to an almost farcical degree. She lost her appeal and terror by becoming the main character no longer silently and invisibly haunting the screen.
Taking some distance since my first viewing, I now appreciate their attempt to reference other classics within the genre. The recasting of Taissa Farmiga as the Sister investigating the happenings in the abbey was a nice touch. I also appreciate the decision to close the cycle in the end, bringing us back to the first scene in The Conjuring II. That said, I can’t help but feel utterly disappointed that The Nun did not leave the mark I expected, especially being released in the same year as the new horror classic Hereditary (2018) at the same time as the It remakes.
I love horror movies. Still, to this day, my friends and I ritually watch a horror movie on October 1st to celebrate the beginning of the Halloween celebrations, my favorite holiday. I can honestly say though, this year, I will not be dressing up as the Nun.