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Saturday, September 08, 2018

The Nun

If I were reviewing The Nun solely on its visuals, this would end up being a rave review.  Beautifully dark, tons of Gothic atmosphere, and a certain sense of dread is created by the visuals, and the setting itself (a secluded abbey where something terrible obviously has happened) is one we don't see very often in modern horror, and is used effectively here.  Nearly every shot has been laid out by director Corin Hardy to create a sort of tension, and the deeper the characters go into the settings, uncovering lost tunnels and ancient crypts, my excitement only mounted. 

So, I guess the movie is effective in that regard.  I also must admit that there are a few effective jump scare moments here, which are actually somewhat subtle in their set up.  This is a movie that has been made effectively, and by people who know what they're doing.  The only thing that prevents me from fully embracing the film is that the plot doesn't really go anywhere, or at least takes too long to get to where it's supposed to go.  We also surprisingly get to see very little of the titular demonic nun   Portrayed by Bonnie Aarons, clad all in black, and with her face a twisted and evil-looking concoction, the nun itself is an imposing villain figure, just as she was when she was introduced in 2016's The Conjuring 2. (This film serves as a spin off to that franchise, and while there is some connection, this is mostly a stand-alone movie.) But the movie doesn't use her nearly as much as it should, and for a good part of the story, we're watching the main characters wander about in the dark for far too long. 

The Nun clearly wants to be a mix of religious mystery and old-school adventure, but there is just something off about the pacing.  It meanders a bit when it should be thrilling us, and when the thrills finally do come, and the menacing nun apparition is finally getting up in the faces of our intrepid heroes, the movie is nearly over.  And yet, I was never exactly bored.  The movie constantly gave me sights and images to admire.  As much as I was enjoying the technical craft, there was a voice in the back of my mind telling me that this was beautiful, but not very exciting or scary.  If I walked out disappointed, I also found myself enjoying it in a certain way.  Not enough to give it a full recommendation, but not enough for me to write it off as a failure.  There's stuff to enjoy, but it just doesn't work like it should.

The plot is set some 20 years before the events in The Conjuring movies, in 1952, where an incident at an old abbey in Romania has gotten the attention of the Vatican.  A nun has mysteriously taken her own life after she uncovered a door deep within the hidden chambers of the abbey that had a message scrawled across the door that reads, "God ends here". (Never a good sign, and if one should ever come upon a door containing such a message upon it, it's probably best not to open it.) The Catholic Church calls in Father Burke (Damian Bichir), a self-proclaimed "Miracle Hunter" who is usually assigned to handle Vatican City's more baffling mysteries.  They want him to investigate not only the tragic mystery behind the nun's suicide, but also the grounds itself, which has a very dark history. 

Father Burke is assigned a partner in Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, real life sister of Vera Farmiga, who stars in The Conjuring), a young novitiate who has not yet taken her vows.  After arriving in Romania, they are joined up by a French-Canadian man who calls himself Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who was the one who discovered the suicidal nun hanging from a noose outside a window, her body being pecked apart by crows.  The three step inside the abbey, begin to learn its dark secrets, discover it is full of some very frightened and untrusting nuns, and are constantly being menaced by a shape-shifting evil entity that seems to be the cause of everything bad that's happening within.  All of this has the makings of an intriguing slow-burn mystery, but the screenplay by Gary Dauberman (It) never raises the stakes like it should.  I constantly found myself interested, but never quite invested to the extent like I thought I should be.

There are some individually thrilling moments throughout The Nun, such as when Father Burke finds himself buried alive at one point.  That whole sequence, including Sister Irene's effort to rescue him, is probably the closest the film comes to truly being great.  All of the other thrills are of the variety where something menacing is lurking in the shadows, while the heroes are unaware of its presence as they continue their exploration.  There are also a lot of jump scares here, and like I said, some are effective.  But there are even more that are not, and I have kind of grown weary of horror films that rely heavily on things jumping out at you for thrills.  All of it looks great, and some of it even works.  But I also found myself wishing that there was just more to this than what I was being given.

I'm not sorry I saw The Nun, but I also have a hard time drumming up much enthusiasm for it outside of the technical artistry.  This is one of those movies that you really want to be better, because you can see so much potential within, and there are moments that resemble what it should have been.  But those moments are like small episodes in a larger whole of something that just never takes off.

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