Set almost exclusively in a remote Romanian abbey where satanic demons have been kept at bay for decades by the power of prayer, Corin Hardy’s The Nun has all the ingredients for a sustained exercise in unsettling gothic horror. The film is littered with images of candlelit hallways, dank basements, veiled nuns, and a foggy forest housing the abbey’s graveyard. Yet Hardy is hardly concerned with building up any sense of narrative momentum or even delving into the mythology behind the titular demonic nun, Valak (Bonnie Aarons), who first made an appearance in James Wan’s The Conjuring 2.
That’s because Hardy prioritizes above all else the jump scare, and with such egregious abandon that The Nun, essentially a series of disjointed freak-outs and red herrings, feels less like a fully realized horror film than the cinematic equivalent of a Conjuring-inspired maze at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. Indeed, if you were to count the number of times the camera pans away from and then back to a character to reveal either a ghost or demon that wasn’t there or one that was there and is now gone, you’d probably go white-haired by the time the film hit the one-hour mark.
The Nun’s meager plot follows the exploits of a priest, Father Burke (Demián Bichir), and a young novitiate, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who arrive at the abbey on the order of the Vatican to investigate the recent suicide of a nun. Despite the abundance of red flags to arouse their suspicions, Burke and Irene blindly follow each and every breadcrumb laid out to draw them into labyrinthine basement hallways or out to the haunted graveyard. Early in the film, there’s a flash of genuine terror in seeing Burke buried alive, as the agonizing claustrophobia that grips the man isn’t compromised by any ostentatious show of misdirection. But the rest of the film is business as usual, and at times cheaply and manipulatively so, as whole scenes are presented as projections of the troubled young nun’s psyche.
And because Hardy doesn’t provide much in the way of backstory—about Sister Irene or the supposed powers of the demons running amok in the abbey—The Nun comes to feel as if arbitrariness is its governing principle. Which is to say nothing of the dissonance of watching a film with the look of an anarchic kaleidoscopic horror funhouse approaching its increasingly silly story with the utmost seriousness. Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the handsome young villager who first took Burke and Sister Irene to the abbey, arrives on the scene for some ever-so-brief dashes of comic relief, but the film practically begs for a more pronounced sense of camp.
At one point, Frenchie actually goes out of his way to correct a demon nun, telling her that he’s French Canadian before spraying her with holy water. And another scene sees Father Burke, geared up to kick some demonic ass, quipping that “Now is the time for action.” But even such frivolous moments are approached with a non-ironic solemnity that’s ultimately more frightening than any of the tiresome jump scares in the film’s arsenal, leaving The Nun feeling as if it’s not in on the joke even when the audience is laughing.