There’s a podcast that I really enjoy called The Last Podcast on the Left (they’re coming to our true crime festival, buy your tickets here). They talk about serial killers and aliens and all sorts of monsters, real and imagined, but as you can guess by the title, they also talk about horror movies. As huge fans of the genre, they’ll often say things like, “Every horror movie is my child.” That line has been bouncing around in the back of my head ever since I saw The Nun, because I felt exactly like a disappointed parent walking out of that movie. It’s as if I went to my kid’s piano recital and instead of playing the piano, they decided to murder all of my loved ones instead. Or maybe a parent/child relationship is the wrong metaphor. It’s more like I lost my entire life savings betting on a prized racehorse that couldn’t even make it out of the gate.
Some of the trouble is that The Nun isn’t a film that stands on it’s own, it’s a part of the greater The Conjuring cinematic universe and while that CU has produced some duds (Annabelle) it’s also spawned some of the best horror movies of the last ten years. Say what you want about James Wan, but the man knows how to make a fun and thoroughly spooky movie, which is why The Nun‘s “let’s do a little bit of everything and do none of it well” approach is especially frustrating. The movie starts out at a fast clip with a nun committing suicide outside of a convent in Romania. The Vatican is disturbed by the news, so they send their resident “miracle hunter”, the gruff and no nonsense Father Burke. Joining him is Sister Irene, a nun in training who experienced religious visions as a child. Once in Romania, they quickly pick up a French Canadian farmer who goes by the name Frenchie and offers to be their “local” guide. Then there are nun hijinks like getting buried alive, having pentagrams carved into your skin, and seeing demons.
Unfortunately, none of those hijinks are especially compelling because they’re offset with bad dialogue, awkward pacing, and a few cinematic choices that felt so wild and out of nowhere they took me out of the movie. At one point, they power point style crossfade from a demon fight to a tight shot of a priest’s eye? I’m still confused. The films only saving grace is that it has a rich history iconography and lore to draw upon. Catholicism and horror goes together like milk and cookies. Growing up Catholic, there’s nothing more heavy metal than watching a cross slowly turn upside down like a broken clock. Even when the movie isn’t working (which is most of the film) the gothic setting with its heap of wooden crosses and its silent nuns is captivating. It’s the best actor in the movie.
It’s not like I expected The Nun to be so good it would break the genre barrier and win an Oscar, but I did think I’d have more fun, and that’s the biggest sin a bad horror movie can make. If you’re not going to be scary and you’re not going to be interesting, you have to be fun. There are a few moments in the film where it feels like they’re starting to veer into some classic nunsploitation territory, and while those scenes are definitely a highlight, they’re also a peak into another dimension where this is a better movie. Until I can hop on a Tesla rocket and blast into that universe, I’m skipping The Conjuring spin-offs. Call me when Wan is in the director’s chair.