Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Nun (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: At a monastery in Romania, a nun has been found dead from an apparent suicide. Wanting to find out what exactly happened, and to make sure that this incident has defiled the sacred ground of the monastery, the Vatican sends Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate. As they search the monastery and the surrounding area for clues, with the help of local farmer Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), they discover something truly evil hiding within.

Bichir may be stuck with a rather overplayed archetype, that of the drunken priest with a haunted past, but credit to him for selling the character woes with as much veracity as he does here. Farmiga, aside from giving a nice representation of a far-less fundamental view of devotion in her initial scene, nails a lot of the quieter moments she’s given while still adding a real punch to the proceedings as things grow more chaotic. Bloquet is basically the strongman of the film, complete with sawn-off shotgun, and while his place in the film is largely meant to kick-start the plot and give a tie-in to the main Conjuring series, his flirty moments opposite Farmiga comes across a lot less desperate than they would have in lesser hands. Bonnie Aarons, who also played the horror behind the Winkie’s diner in Mulholland Drive, brings that same immediately unnerving presence to this production as the titular Nun. In a series where creature acting has been the only consistent bright side, she might pale in comparison to what’s come before but she certainly gives this creature its own presence and more than enough reasons to be terrified of it.

After the middling-to-frankly-embarrassing track record of the Annabelle films up to this point, I actively tried to call it when I looked at The Conjuring 2 that this film was not going to be able to stand on its own merits. Well, I could not be more wrong on that front as, from a visual standpoint, this film has an atmosphere all of its own. The monastery where the majority of the film takes place, as captured by DOP Maxime Alexandre, lets the ostensible isolation of both the location and its residents create a permeating feeling of unease. The mist-coated cemetery, the claustrophobic catacombs, the tainted majesty of the halls with giant crosses affixed in the centre; it all gives a sense that God has clearly been evicted from this house, and the new tenant isn’t one to be messed with lightly. Of course, some of this can be difficult to make out as the tagline “Witness the darkest chapter in The Conjuring Universe” turns out to be quite literal; it works for most of the scenes it’s used in, but it still feels like the need for moody lighting overtook the need for the audience to see anything on-screen at times. Then again, with Abel Korzeniowski’s cavernous and choral-driven compositions, that feeling of dread lingers even with the murky visuals.

From that tension comes a suitable springboard for director Corin Hardy’s brand of scares, which feel both in-tune with the preceding films and a breath of fresh air in actually doing that tune justice. We have jump scares throughout a lot of this film, but none of the immediately-obvious variety. This takes what I will possibly erroneously refer to as the National Lampoon’s Vacation style: From the setup, it’s clear that something is definitely going to go wrong… but it’s not clear what exactly will go wrong or when it will happen. Quite a few moments here bank on misdirection to get the jolts in, not to mention toying with the characters’ sense of reality, and it ends up working a treat as far as raising that surface tension up a few notches. From there, the individual set pieces show some real creativity between Hardy and writer Gary Dauberman, building on age-old superstitions and historical markers to make for some pretty hair-raising moments. There’s a scene during the first act involving a live burial, and it’s the kind of sequence that not only shows serious dedication to making this horror movie actually scary, it also makes it clear that this isn’t even the best it has to offer. Considering quite a few modern horror efforts tend to peak way too early, that’s a pretty nice touch.

Honestly, though, the most interesting part of this film isn’t anything to do with the genre thrills. Rather, it’s how this film feels like a culmination of The Conjuring’s overall take on belief, sin and where the two intertwine in the face of the unholy. It admittedly starts off on a troublesome note with a suicide (and there’s a lot of that imagery to be found in here) that is later described as “the worst sin”. I’ll refer to my review of Lights Out for a proper take on how much I appreciate that idea, but then again, the film doesn’t go in anywhere near the same route. Rather, between that moment in its full context and the behaviour of the nuns within the monastery, this gives possibly the most (for lack of a better term) faithful depiction of the nuns’ life of servitude. It’s depicted as a life devoted to not only witnessing the glory of God but also keeping the beings that seek to warp it from breaking through, turning seeming passivity into the actions of a vanguard. This even goes some way to excuse the still-lingering misuse of the cross of St. Peter, as it could be argued as being simply a manner of perspective as far as how ‘unholy’ the symbol truly is. Then again, the inverted cross is something of a self-perpetuated falsehood in the realm of horror and LaVeyan subversiveness, so getting annoyed with that as I have in the past is an uphill struggle. Still, beyond that one sticking point, the approach to faith and piety throughout is certainly a lot more mature than I would’ve expected from its forebears.

All in all, the Conjuring cinematic universe now has a prequel that it can be truly proud of. The acting is solid where it needs to be, the visuals convey an incredibly thick atmosphere that lends well to the themes of religious symbols being warped by that which is unholy, the horror sticks to the right kind of jump scares to actually make full use of the well-constructed set pieces, and the writing taps into thematic veins of the overall series regarding faith and Christianity that hasn’t really been given its fair due up until this point. It’s a damn effective horror flick, and considering we have yet another Annabelle movie coming out next year, I can only hope that this is a sign of better things to come. Here’s also hoping that I don’t have to eat my words again.

It ranks higher than Solo: A Star Wars Story, as this film’s connections to other works don’t end up creating serious head tilts in trying to piece the threads together. James Wan’s enviable approach to universe building holds true here, as The Nun marks an uncharacteristically strong effort for the spin-off arm of that universe. However, as good as this is, I will admit that its exploration of themes could still have been done with a bit more finesse; what we have here is good, but there’s still a feeling that not all of the potential has been tapped yet. A Simple Favour, by contrast, taps into what is quickly becoming a growing trend in cinema and manages to unearth something fresh, exciting, and more than worthy from it. For a director stepping into (mostly) new territory, that’s a feat that outweighs even this film on the impressive stakes.

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