In this climate of real life horrors, ‘The Nun’ does nothing to offer anything genuinely frightening, other some cleverly done jump scares. In this day and age of the Internet and easy access to information, a film like ‘The Nun’ offers very little in making this world scarier or more horrifying. Its mythology is weak (the usual demon trying to break through into our world), and while it is steeped in religious setting, it lacks any sense of true ritual or ceremony.
The film is set in the 1950s in Romania, but everyone speaks English and the language veers towards the contemporary. There’s very little that tells us it's a period piece. After a nun is found dead outside a secluded cloister in Romania, the Vatican sends a priest, who specializes in miracles, and Sister Irene, a novitiate about to take her vows, to investigate the apparent suicide.
Demian Bichir and Taissa Fermiga are formidable genre actors but even they can’t find their way through this strange script and its one-dimensional characters. There are no nuances to the priest and to Sister Irene. They are the same characters from the beginning to the end with a little reveal of a haunted past for the priest that really does nothing to add depth to his character. And while Demian Bichir has done amazing work in the past, especially in a television show as quirky as ‘Weeds,’ this is Taissa Fermiga’s territory as an alumnus of ‘American Horror Story.’ In two different seasons, she played a different shade of a similar character but managed to add layers and layers to the role.
She has very little opportunity to do so here.
To its credit, ‘The Nun’ has very little exposition and goes straight into the abbey. There is no reasoning behind sending one seasoned priest who investigates miracles and hauntings, and a novitiate nun with clairvoyant abilities. And when they detect the sinister at play, they decide to stay in the abbey and continue their investigation despite obvious hauntings and malevolent spirits.
They don’t call for backup. They are all alone with no means of outside communication with the world. It just seems comical.
To add to the absurdity, there is a Frenchman who lives in the town nearby and he has a sort of romantic tension with Sister Irene, and as he casually flirts with the novitiate nun, there is a creepiness involved watching from a 2018 perspective. Maybe because he’s French (sorry, French Canadian, it’s a shtick in the movie) or maybe because it’s the 1950s (even though it doesn’t sound or feel like it). It just seems off.
What I also find strange is how I found its usage of the desecration of holy symbols like the cross and statues of Jesus and Mary as a source of horror. The people around me were taking the cues as signs that a jump scare was about to happen. But with the lack of proper language and behaviour befitting a priest and a nun and its lack of ceremony and ritual, it felt almost decorative.
There’s something absurd in this depiction of holy symbols and relics in an age where more people are leaving the Catholic church and how the institution is suffering from scandals and internal schisms. It doesn’t have the same effect as it does in something like classic horror film ‘The Exorcist.’ ‘The Nun’ is never as scary as more refreshing takes on demonic possession like you will see in films like ‘Hereditary’ or ‘The Witch.’
I didn’t like ‘The Nun’ at all, but people around me in the cinema were frightened and screamed at the jump scares--but this didn’t affect me because I didn’t care for any of the characters nor the imagery. There are good setups for tense and thrilling moments. But other than that, there is nothing new or refreshing or genuinely scary about ‘The Nun.’
This franchise needs the nuanced and layered characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Fermiga) from ‘The Conjuring’ from which this movie is a spinoff. Good horror stems from really caring about the characters and from a primal fear that pervades the current climate. Demon nuns in a secluded cloister in 1950s Romania is just not that scary in this world of global warming, authoritarian rule in many countries (including ours), and everything else happening in real life.