By Jim Slotek
In a period-piece horror movie like The Nun, you’d expect the place-setter in the opening scene to read “Romania, 1952.” The Nun adds the words, “This happened in…” It gets the first laugh of the night. It is not the last.
The inadvertently hilarious The Nun is a prequel to The Conjuring 2, which introduced a nun-masquerading demon named Valak (Bonnie Aarons). And all these movies take place in the cinematic universe of real-life “paranormal investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren (of Amityville fame).
Ipso facto, demon nuns are real. Which as a former Catholic school-boy, I can tell you is not necessarily a stretch.
The Catholic Church being such a treasure trove of ancient ritualism and apocryphal rumours, it is pretty much a blank slate for any hack horror premise a writer on a deadline (James Wan in this case) can dream up. Catholic priests are not alone in exorcising demons. But somehow, I don’t think a movie about some backwoods snake-handling preacher in Appalachia would have the same gravitas as a priest berating a demon in Latin.
And okay, gravitas may be a heavy word to use for a movie in which a trio of God’s own demon-hunters (one of them a French-Canadian nicknamed, um, "Frenchie"), makes a Dracula-like trek through the woods in the dark to a sketchy Romanian abbess, against a faux monastic chant soundtrack so throaty it sounds like a didgeridoo.
Did I use say Dracula? The villagers consider the convent cursed (its film location is an actual Transylvanian castle!) and spit on the ground at its mention. The laughs just keep on coming.
To backtrack, this pre-Warren investigation is led by a Catholic priest/trained exorcist Father Burke (Demián Bichir), sent by the Vatican to investigate the suicide of a nun at the Abbess. For reasons unknown, the Vatican has teamed him with a novitiate nun named Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga who plays Lorraine Warren in the aforementioned Conjuring movies, although there doesn’t appear to be a connection between the onscreen characters).
Added at the last minute for comic relief is Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who seems to be there only to act either terrified or inappropriately aroused by the not-quite-a-nun-yet Sister Irene. What is a French-Canadian doing working as a labourer in a remote Romanian village? Um, I don’t know.
But once they’re there, all clichéd Hell breaks loose. They are ushered in by a face-covered “Mother Superior,” (whose demon-voice practically announces “I’m a demon, you idiot!”) and are promised that they’ll get to speak to the other nuns in the morning, after Vespers. So, unpack and stay in some spare rooms.
What follows is pretty much every trope in the horror catalogue, apparitions in the mirror that aren’t there when you turn around, entities running around in the background, hands that reach through walls to grab you.
And a portal to Hell. There’s always a portal to Hell. You’d think there’d just be the one at the Tony Orlando Theatre in Branson, Missouri, but no. Eventually, The Nun becomes just numbing waves of demon nuns, trying to stop Father Burke, Sister Irene and Frenchie from closing the portal and locking in Valak.
I will give The Nun this, it has an utterly outrageous ending that pretty much brought the house down at the advance screening I attended. All I’ll say is it involves the blood of a deity.
God help us.