The modern mainstream horror is a lot like a haunted house attraction at an amusement park. The carnival barker outside promises more thrills than could ever possibly be delivered. The story told inside is never nearly as important as the craftsmanship of individual images and the establishment of a spooky atmosphere. The most you can really ask for is to be startled a few times by a well-executed act of misdirection; the communal experience of getting spooked in public before returning to your normal life, unaffected but amused, is entirely the point. By those metrics, The Nun is a perfectly average modern horror flick, delivering no more & no less than necessary to skate by as a passable novelty entertainment. Its phenomenal jump-scare trailer beckons passerby to wander to the ticket booth for the soul-shaking freak-out of a lifetime, only for the film to deliver the bare-minimum genre goods instead. Its narrative is a flimsy excuse to string together a series of cheap-thrill spooky images & startling noises. The communal experience of jumping out your seat with a hundred fellow novelty-seeking strangers in the film’s opening weeks is the best it can offer, a cheap thrill that’s quickly forgotten as you wander off to the next attraction.
The Nun’s mediocrity is announced as soon as its exposition, where the film is framed as an out-of-sequence spinoff from The Conjuring franchise with a “Previously on . . . “ flashback befitting a TV series. What follows is a prequel that over-explains the origins of a creepy cameo character from the original Conjuring movies, adopting the same approach as the Annabelle spinoffs. The Annabelle movies mire their origin story mythology in story, however, whereas The Nun does very little to pretend that it is anything but a haunted house attraction. In this case the haunted “house” is a ghostly convent, where The Gates of Hell were once opened to allow a demon to crossover & possess the unsuspecting nuns who live there. We join the action in the 1950s, where a young nun-to-be, a priestly “miracle hunter,” and their French-Canadian scamp of a tour guide investigate the mysterious phenomena of the haunted convent, only to be startled from all directions by the horrors they find inside. Big budget nunsploitation set dressing & familiar Gothic horror atmosphere are only mood-setting novelties meant to flavor the standard demonic jump scares & spooky Catholic iconography The Nun delivers. The characters are practically ushered down an assembly line conveyor belt for their own turn to be startled by the attractions inside, swiftly moving along to the next crop of willing victims can have their fun.
If The Nun were going to be anything more than a perfectly mediocre mainstream horror, its best chance would have been to lean into its value as a cheap novelty. Part of the reason that the film’s trailer is such a delight is that it wastes no time with narrative concerns and instead isolates a single scene of jump-scare misdirection, delivered without context. The film itself unwisely dilutes those types of thrills with an abundance of context that could only be described as a waste of time, especially when deployed to nest the film within The Conjuring’s overarching mythology. The machine-like efficiency of last year’s IT adaptation, where tension was built & released with regular-interval jump scares like a rhythmically reset rotary dial, is an excellent example of how that formula can be executed at a higher, more memorable level. As is, the pacing is a little too languid for the film to fully satisfy as anything more than a loose collection of cheap thrills & spooky nunsploitation-themed images. Any intense praise or condemnation of The Nun can only be hyperbolic, as the film is the exact medium of what big-budget horror looks like the 2010s. The Nun deserves neither ecstatic championing nor intense negativity – only mild, temporary amusement. It’s fine.