Movie Review: The Nun

Dark and foggy gothic horror makes a comeback in a Conjuring prequel

The Nun (Sestra)
Directed by Corin Hardy
With Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons

Drive-ins and cinema grindhouses used to thrive on gothic horror films, filled with dark and foggy cemeteries, crumbling castles, terrified peasants, unholy forces and a plot that often relies on a visual sense more than any coherent logic.

The Nun, the latest entry in the Conjuring cinema universe, brings viewers back to that nostalgic world, with somewhat better special effects but retaining the sense of style over substance.

The film takes place in 1952, and is an origin story for the ghostly nun that turns up in 2016’s The Conjuring 2, with a story set in 1976. It currently comes first chronologically in the series.

The filmmakers couldn’t resist setting the story in Romania, the modern-day home of the classic horror film location Transylvania. They conveniently overlook that in 1952, Romania was a communist county and also that it largely is Romanian Orthodox and not Roman Catholic.

The film jumps right into action, with literally all Hell breaking loose at a massive castle/convent that has endless dark and gloomy corridors but not many (living) people.

This leads the Vatican to send a priest, Father Burke (played by Demián Bichir), and novice nun, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), to investigate.

Romania does not disappoint. Even though it is the 1950s, the investigators have to ride in a horse-drawn wagon on unpaved roads. The driver, called Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), of course takes a bit of an interest in the pretty novice nun, who has not yet taken her final vows.

Crooked tombstones seem to be a decorating fad, as they are everywhere. Villagers refuse to talk about the convent, and would rather spit instead when it is mentioned.

And somebody left the smoke machine on overnight.

The investigators fall headlong into an almost psychedelic array evil visions and bizarre occurrences, barely recovering from one incident before another starts. And just for fun, there is a flashback to the Middle Ages to add a further gruesome layer to the story and another foray through time to some incidents in World War II.

The convent seems to be an endless maze as no time is spent in explaining the layout. Good nuns and evil apparitions are dressed the exact same, so it is hard to tell who to trust.

Some of the frights are fairly obvious — sudden apparitions, slamming doors and loud noises, but there is also a sense of fear and dread built up over the long term. The film essentially becomes a nightmare that you can’t force yourself to fully wake up from.

While there is a certain underlying sense of campiness, with the tombstones so numerous and fog so thick it is almost comical, the cast plays through all of the genre cliches and tropes as if they were still fresh.

The overall mood of the film is reminiscent of the 1960s and ’70s horror films from Italy like Mario Bava’s classic Black Sunday and his overlooked Kill, Baby, Kill.

There are also nods to 1930s films like Dracula and Frankenstein, with the villagers in fear of the nearby castle, and even the Spanish-made Blind Templar films, with the flashback to medieval sorcery.

Actress Taissa Farmiga is the much younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who starred in The Conjuring 2. The sisters look very much alike. Taissa has become known as a scream queen, appearing in several TV horror series. She is good at the roles and evokes a lot of sympathy here with her struggles.

Demián Bichir is just adequate as the shopworn priest struggling with mistakes in his past but does not stand out in particular, often overwhelmed by the special effects. Jonas Bloquet also brings little new to the role of the womanizer attracted to a novice nun.

This is director Corin Hardy’s second film after 2015’s The Hallow, which had generally good reviews citing the mood and atmosphere.

He seems well-versed in the horror genre, picking key elements from different sources and fusing them together to create a good sense of atmosphere.

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