The Nun (2018)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Little Hours (2017)

To date, I’ve been a huge fan of all three of Jeff Baena’s features as a director. I was even an unwitting devotee going as far back as his first writer’s credit on the required taste absurdist comedy I Huckabees. Besides consistently collaborating with Aubrey Plaza, however, there’s no solid pattern to his output as an auteur. The zom-com Life After Beth & the bachelor party from Hell black comedy Joshy have a vaguely similar dedication to bleak humor in the midst of a romantic fallout, but don’t resemble each other in the slightest in terms of genre, plot, or tone. With his latest film, The Little Hours,  Baena even leaves his usual bleakness behind for an entirely different kind of dark comedy altogether. Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, The Little Hours finds Baena at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. I swear Baena improves with every picture.

Aubrey Plaza, Allison Brie, and Kate Micucci star as a trio of “tough & violent” nuns bored out of their minds in a 14th Century convent. As a period piece, the movie makes several subtly played points about how young women without proper dowries were dumped into these religious institutions when their families became irritated with their presence at home & how class determined their place in the convents once admitted. Mostly, though, the film is a nonstop bacchanal reminiscent of the second half of Ken Russell’s The Devils or a sex comedy version of The Witch. Their lives are mostly an endless routine of dutiful prayer/domestic chores being interrupted by devious experiments with getting drunk, making out, flirting with black magic, and beating a poor farmer with his own lousy turnips. Their juvenile acts of depravity & vandalism become more focused with the introduction of a deaf, mute hottie played by Dave Franco, but the movie is mostly an episodic catalog of wild, vulgar nuns’ misbehavior. This slight, but eccentric dynamic works exceptionally well thanks to the immense comedic talent of the three leads, who rarely get as much freedom to cause havoc as they do here.

Based on one isolated section of the 14th Century text The Decameron, The Little Hours more or less lives up to the diminutive modifier of its title. Brevity is healthy for a comedy, though, and although the film is obviously informed by improv experimentation, it’s sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. At a lean 90 minutes and armed with the idyllic Garden of Eden sunshine of a sexed-up European “art film” (softcore porno) of the hippy-dippy Satanic psychedelia era, The Little Hours might just be both the best traditional comedy and the best period piece I’ve seen all year. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Micucci, who is usually cast as a reserved nerd, to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates. It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet. As always, I look forward to whatever unexpected project he’ll deliver next, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard or been as visually in awe of his work as I was with this release.

-Brandon Ledet