It’s hard to make a good horror movie. That’s why the good ones are so notable – even if they haven’t seen it, everybody knows of The Exorcist. The stars have to align in order for it to make sense. Cabin in the Woods illustrates this to great effect. Characters need solid motivation and reasoning, there generally needs to be some form of transgression from the characters to incite what happens next. The Nun executes this function with about as much panache as a Disney direct to video tie in sequel.
It’s a level of ineptitude that I found rather surprising, given that The Conjuring was widely fairly well regarded.
The story of the film is as follows – A priest with a dark past is enlisted by the Vatican to investigate the apparent suicide of a nun in a remote convent in Romania. Accompanying him is a nun that is yet to undertake her vows, and a French Canadian who calls himself “Frenchie”. Together they uncover the the secret of the convent and battle the demonic evil that resides within.
The Nun’s attempt at horror is to waggle its fingers at the audience with a soft moan as it rustles paper behind your head. If that makes it sound like a carnival sideshow funhouse, that’s because the level of aptitude the movie shows for effective horror writing and scares is on par with the teenager from glee club in a werewolf costume jumping out from behind a cardboard cutout at the state fair. The film relies heavily on the use of jump scares. It felt as if almost every scene included one and they’re signposted so well and are so formulaic that none of them worked for their intended purpose.
The biggest sin of The Nun however is its poor aping of 2008’s The Strangers strongest and scariest scene. The scene in question in The Strangers takes place inside, where Liv Tyler is smoking and on edge after she has had a late night visitor that has left her rattled. As she looks out the kitchen window, tense and alone, a silent hooded figure stands in the background of the scene watching her. There is no music. As she turns around, the figure is gone. There is no cathartic moment of realization that there was someone standing there watching her, nor the necessary relief of an on screen death. This scene has been compared to those used in John Carpenter’s Halloween series, where Michael Myers stalks his prey. In The Nun, we are treated to multiple shots of a dark figure in the background of a reflection in a mirror, or silently standing over one of the heroic party. This is so poorly handled through the overuse of tense music and poor shot framing however, that all it serves to do is frustrate rather than thrill or scare, praying for the scene to just move on.
Another cardinal sin is the needless division of the three characters, breaking the golden tabletop gaming rule – never split the party. Characters go off alone to investigate spooky graveyards with overactive fog machines, and stalk down dark endless corridors with dark figures moving always just at the periphery of the hallways and corners, despite the fact that some of them are a few feet away, whilst others span several metres. There’s no narrative reason for them to split up, just as there’s absolutely no reason that the characters should survive past the initial ten minutes of the movie. Valek is perfectly capable of murdering the entire party early on when they first arrive, however never seems intent on grievously harming those it haunts until the last 5 minutes or so when they become particularly hands on and homicidal.
In an interview with George RR Martin, Stephen King said of the nature of evil – “Outside evil is a more comforting concept. The idea the devil made me do it is a way of shucking responsibility”. Martin himself said in an interview with TIME Magazine – “the battle between good and evil is fought largely within the individual human heart, by the decisions that we make.” Instead of reflecting the darkness within human nature, The Nun largely externalizes the evil forces present within the film, and this is why it largely and wholly fails in its crusade. The story makes no sense, and there is no finesse or craft to its filmmaking. The characters are largely bland, and the villain moreso. You’ll have a scarier time going to Sunday mass than having to sit through this movie.