This year, something of a habit is emerging, as nuns have become the focus of an inordinate amount of horror cinema. Aislinn Clark’s The Devil’s Doorway and Darren Lynn Bousman’ St Agatha used their cloistered settings to explore the manner in which both church and society in the last century abused and exploited so-called ‘fallen’ women (and their children). The nun protagonist in Gonzalo Calzada’s Luciferina becomes the conflicted conduit for modern Argentina’s twinned genesis of paganism and Christianity. And god knows what theme was echoing beneath the Hammer aesthetics of Paul Hyett’s Heretiks. Corin Hardy’s The Nun, though, is getting the highest profile release of all these films, thanks to its place in the ever-expanding Conjuring universe that pieces together paranormal cases investigated by celebrity demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren.
Demonic nun Valak (Bonnie Aarons) first appeared in The Conjuring 2, in scenes reprised at the beginning of The Nun. Directed by Corin Hardy (The Hallow, 2015), the new film is set long before those events in America, and on the other side of the world, as Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is sent by the Vatican to investigate the suicide of young Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope) at the isolated Cârta Abbey in Romania’s backwoods. It is 1952, although it might as well – according to Canadian delivery boy Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who found Victoria’s body – be ‘the Dark Ages’, with the Transylvanian setting, the superstitious locals and the castle ruins all suggesting the classical trappings of high gothic. Burke is accompanied in his mission by Frenchie, and by novice nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), sceptical and hesitant to take her vows, yet afflicted since childhood by visions binding her destiny to the Abbey. That this ‘Sister’ is played by the actual sister of Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren in the Conjuring films and briefy here), only adds to the suggestion that all these supernatural incidents, though separated by time and space, remain intimately if irrationaly interrelated.
A long dormant evil has been reawoken in the Abbey by wartime bombings. The vampiric, serpentine Vakal variously adopts the form of a boy (August Maturo) whom Burke once killed with an exorcism, and of a terrifying nun with glowing eyes – and as Burke, Irene and Frenchie enter the cloistered confines of the Abbey and the convent next door, their every attempt to keep Vakal in risks giving her a way out. For whether they are in the graveyard outside, or the catacombs, or the chapel, or the ice room, or the nuns’ cells, or the crucifix-strewn passageway hidden below, nothing is ever quite as it seems, with Vakal insinuating herself into their every perception of the environs that are both her prison and her playground.
Two things quickly become clear about The Nun. The first is that, unlike so much other nunsploitation out there, this film has no intention of critiquing Catholicism. For in this straightforward story of the timeless clash between good and evil, the Church is placed unambiguously on the side of the good, and Vakal, while adopting Catholic dress and iconography as her guise, is never regarded as anything other than a vicious imposter, inverting the cross and poisoning faith. The real nuns, however, are models of piety, having devoted their entire lives to perpetual prayer designed to keep Vakal’s evil at bay, and even undertaking Jesus-like acts of self-sacrifice to ensure that the outside world remains safe. It is a strange dynamic, as Hardy simultaneously exploits the dark garb of nuns to creepy effect, and pays full respect to the religious order, finding a resolution to his puzzle story which depends upon a serious engagement with holy relics and even a belief in Christian lore.
Secondly, The Nun is a film big on scares but short on subtext. Pumping fog and mist into the already deep shadows of virtually every location, Hardy capably builds the atmosphere, amps up the tension and sets up the frights, while also deploying smoke and mirrors and visual sleights of hand to restrict viewers to the characters’ illusory mindset in all these spooky set-pieces. Yet once you strip away the boo moments, once you sort the living from the dead, the only ‘outside reality’ to which The Nun refers is the (fraudulent) world of the Warrens, and the only place for which Vakal seems destined – perhaps after another sequel outing or several – is the Warrens’ room of curious cabinets where all these stories are ultimately contained. The Nun is effective as visceral, in-the-moment horror, but there is little of substance beneath the wimple.
© Anton Bitel