Finally, the Marilyn Manson biopic the world's been waiting for.
Directed by Corin Hardy
Written by Gary Dauberman
The Nun is easy to despise; of the horror films of 2018 that made real money, it might be the worst. But unlike, for example, the grittily-idiotic and unaccountably-successful A Quiet Place, when you despise The Nun, you do so more in sorrow than anger, because there's something there in its scenario, that shouldn't have been hard to do reasonably well, and could've been done very well without too much extra effort. It has the right elements, or at least most of them: it has a lonely and benighted abbey in the wilds of an Eastern Europe that's as much fantasy as it is real, but bears the gloss of actual history, by specifying the place in Eastern Europe as Romania, and the time as 1952; it has a mismatched pair of Vatican agents, one who's seen enough to question his faith after years in service to the church, and another who wants to dedicate her life to it, but is not sure she can; it has a demon, against whom has been set nothing but a society of nuns whose constant prayers are the only force holding it back; and, most important of all, it has a runtime of 96 minutes. To do the reasonably good version of this, you just need a spooky set, some merely decent dialogue (with an ear for when you don't need any dialogue at all), and a slowly simmering boil; you should soon have yourself a nice little midcentury-style Gothic horror, all without much trouble. A really good version of this digs into the underlying themes of faith under trial, and examines the character of this place that God has seemingly abandoned, along with the character of the people who refused to follow His lead because they assume it's what He wanted, spending lifetimes locked in struggle with a perfect evil. You know: the Book of Job, but with caged heat and a ghost or something. (And a really, really good version engages even slightly with the fact that, in 1952 Romania, Catholicism was nearly illegal.)
Clearly, I set my bar much too high: despite the very large number of horror movies that expressly invoke Christianity (which always means "Catholicism" due to its more filmic qualities), the number of them that are also good can be rounded down to zero with no particular loss of accuracy, whereas it may be only one that deals directly with the contradiction between the two things (this being JC's masterful Prince of Darkness). The Nun, it should of course be mentioned, is part of a whole five-film franchise of Catholic-flavored horror, which we find tied into the present film by way of terrifyingly bad bookends that feel like "last week on The Conjuring" and "next time on The Conjuring," respectively, and these movies do not exactly "do religion" uniformly well. Therefore it should perhaps not come as a heart-stopping shock that The Nun's interest in Catholicism as a phenomenon is low, though how low still manages to slightly surprise, as it should when a film about a major world religion reveals that its knowledge of that major world religion is limited to what its makers have learned from vampire movies and airplane viewings of the film adaptations of Dan Brown novels. This sounds very bad already, yet somehow it's even worse in the execution. Sometimes The Nun feels like what you'd get if you instructed a robot programmed for asexuality, literalism, and algorithmic jump scares to make a PG-13 Ken Russell film. And that's The Nun at its very best, notably in an image of its teenaged novitiate heroine spitting the literal blood of Jesus Christ out of her mouth in a slow motion shot that is undoubtedly more anything when you see it in your imagination than what we wind up with in the movie itself. Whereas most of the rest of the time, it feels like watching somebody play Castlevania, and not even particularly skillfully.
The plot picks up from hints left behind by its predecessors, serving as a prequel that tells the story of the nun-shaped force of darkness which real-life con artists and screen-life demon-slayers Lorraine and Ed Warren condemned back to Hell, or something like that (I actually like The Conjuring 2, but even under James Wan's slick auspices, this franchise doesn't really stick to my brain; alas, he but produces here, too busy with an actual masterwork to do anything for The Nun). So, hearkening back a few decades from The Conjuring's 70s period pieces, we begin with two nuns who've just opened a door with the inscription "finit hic Deo," and we get a sense of the kind of simultaneous condescension and laziness we're in for when the movie throws subtitles onto the screen in order to translate it for us, rather than leaving it a piece of subtle set-dressing. Well, our nuns are in the middle of something nasty, and we get a further sense of everything going wrong, as one nun is sucked into the darkness and the other flees, ultimately retreating to a room with a convenient rope, a convenient window, and a convenient drop, as she takes her own life rather than face whatever they let out of that room. We'll "learn" later that she did so to prevent being used as its mortal vessel; assuming we've kind of already figured this out, that means we get to ask immediately, "what was wrong with the nun it got?"
By means that are never really satisfactorily explained, the Vatican is apprised of this suicide, and dispatch Father Burke (a very sleepy Demian Bechir), one of their miracle hunters and an ex-exorcist, and, because he goes into a place of women, he brings along the novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, Vera's back-up body that got activated at the lab about a decade ago by accident; whatever they're attempting to do with the lookalike sister of the Conjuring lead is entirely opaque). They investigate, tapping the man who found the body, Frenchie "French-Canadian" Thierault (Jonas Blouquet, playing Vincent Cassell before he gained dignity with age), the annoying layperson of this film who steadfastly refuses to die as quickly as we'd prefer, and whose major traits are "vague horniness for Irene that goes nowhere, in a decently sweet way that is the film's sole nod to any genuine Christian underpinnings, but is still boring, like a one-sided Black Naricissus" and, moreso, "being French-Canadian." Did I mention he was French-Canadian? The movie is fascinated by this fact. Together, the three make their way to the abbey, where they find things are gross and haunted, starting with the still-wet blood of the suicide, and ramping up rapidly from there.
And so far, so... okay? Not exactly good, but bloody and engaging. It's around the middle that The Nun degenerates completely and very quickly into a numbing series of repetitive and unfrightening scare sequences, which run out of good ideas almost as fast, though at least it has one or two, especially the moment when Burke finds himself buried alive by way of editing, the only scene that feels like "the world has gone wrong," as opposed to "running away from the giant video game boss that's trying to eat you." The Nun finds screenwriter Gary Dauberman doubling-down on the basic weaknesses which he previously demonstrated in 2017's It, namely arbitrariness and a total inability to make you feel as if anything he's conceived is actually dangerous to any character who has more than three lines.
It starts to go poorly even earlier than that, though, when it briefly convinces itself it has any interest in those characters, and starts layering pointless details onto them (Burke likes crosswords) and heavy backstories (Burke killed a kid during an exorcism, which due to the objective reality of demonic possesion was rather obviously not his fault; Irene once experienced visions that are all set-up for an artless Signs-style turn in an extremely-artless third act), and The Nun squats this character work out without actually bothering to give either one an accompanying personality. (As for the non-demonic nuns, the film routinely forgets they're actually there, so when their anonymous numbers do show up, it's only distracting, thanks to all the other times where they're sitting in the ether waiting to be written back into existence.) If it's a competition, both leads are equally flat, wooden, and bad. If Farmiga does better with her lack of character than Bechir, that's probably just the minimal arc Irene possesses; in fact, it's even more likely to be sheer prurience, even within this film that might be the least-prurient cinematic work about nuns ever made, in that it's easier to find Farmiga making giant eyes and supplicating more inherently interesting than it is an obscure man in a black suit uselessly stumbling through an endless series of underlit halls while the film forgets he was supposed to undergo a restoration of faith.
The Nun, like many a Gothic horror before it, bets everything it's got on atmosphere. Actually, most of the good ones have Vincent Price. Nevertheless—despite the insistence in Dauberman's screenplay and Corin Hardy's direction to rush everything to a tedious fever pitch of out-of-frame tricks and loud-sound jump-scare ploys—it's clear The Nun thinks it's managed one. It's not entirely wrong, and the overemphasized everything of this hellmouth abbey (the modal image of The Nun is a forest's worth of crosses, not a single one of them at a right angle to the earth) is probably the best thing the picture's got going for it. Which means, of course, only that it's acceptably mediocre: I spent most of The Nun wondering if I actually liked Maxime Alexandre's sepulchral cinematography, before deciding (possibly in conjunction with the film's fraying narrative) that I didn't, its guiding ethos being "dark is scary" without putting too much thought into why or how, with images that are in that no man's land of being too dark to really read the production design and still too bright to actually entomb its characters in any all-encompassing, claustrophobic blackness. It works sometimes, but not often enough to conjure (hm) any mood; I feel like praising its littler successes, like the small flashes of interesting geometry Hardy and Alexandre stage when Dauberman's script remembers that this nunnery is populated by nuns, and they can put Irene's white habit in the center of the black habits of the sisters under vow; or the fact that it's a movie in 2018 that remembers that split diopter shots are a cinematic possibility. Obviously, this would be more impressive if Suspiria hadn't remembered it, too.
By the time we get around to challenging the demon in a final battle, which is as fatiguing and overdetermined as any horror film's has ever been—it might feel even less like watching a video game than it does a Magic: The Gathering tournament, revolving as it does around throwing powerful artifact cards—you've long since been ready for it to be over. It's so oppressively passionless in every last thing it does: it doesn't believe in the power of its scares, overcompensating with noise and low-rent funhouse effects; it doesn't care about its setting; it doesn't care about its themes of faith any more than it does its boring blasphemies; it doesn't care about its characters as humans and it's a lucky accident when it cares about its characters as objects. It's not endearingly goofy, despite often being goofy; it's never bad in ways that suggest somebody was at least having a fun time. It's never much of anything; the furthest it ever gets away from being a total nullity is only by being stupid. It doesn't really feel made by people at all. (The closest it gets is a joke that seems like it came out of a different dimension: "Holy shit!" "The holiest." Even that isn't read with any relish.) It's the epitome of a movie that was made just 'cause, and which people saw because it came attached to a brand name. Other than being a responsible length, it's everything anyone could possibly hate about the state of cinema in the 2010s.