The fifth film in the Conjuring Cinematic Universe, Corin Hardy’s “The Nun” looks to flesh out the story of Valak, a demonic nun first glimpsed in “The Conjuring 2,” and here seen taking hold of a remote Romanian abbey. But it never manages to answer the one question a spinoff would seem to exist to provide: What, exactly, does this otherworldly demon actually want? It certainly knows all of the tools of the trade – slowly turning crosses upside-down, casting ominous shadows, switching on old-timey radios, emerging from walls to grab terrified novitiates from behind, only to let go as soon as they scream. But as for its endgame, it doesn’t seem to have much in mind beyond punking the local clergy.
As for the film itself, “The Nun” knows exactly what it wants to do. Employing just about every trick from the Hammer Horror playbook without wasting time trying to make any sense, it provides a serviceable 96 minutes of standard-issue jump scares and supernatural hokum, keeping the franchise fresh in moviegoers’ minds and raking in some easy cash while we wait for the next proper installment.
Judging from the opening scene, and just about every scene following, the Abbey of St. Carta in rural Romania has seen better days. Still damaged from bombing during WWII (the film is set in 1952), the establishment is a cold, creaky medieval-era castle, surrounded by forests of crucifixes and ever-present fog, where inner-chamber doors have helpful Latin warning signs reading “God Ends Here.” What’s worse, a young nun, clutching a mysterious key, has hanged herself right in front of the building’s façade, discovered days later by a French-Canadian traveler known as Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who brings supplies in from a nearby village.
To investigate, the Vatican dispatches its most badass priest, Father Burke (Demian Bichir), to Romania, pairing him with a young, progressive-minded novice named Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) for reasons neither initially understand. (Oddly enough, despite Farmiga’s obvious resemblance to her older sister and “Conjuring” mainstay Vera Farmiga, there’s no indication that their characters are related.) After meeting awkwardly with Frenchie in the village, the two journey to the abbey, where things go Vincent Price almost immediately: A spectral figure in the vestibule tells them they must spend the night in a nearby convent, and the malevolent forces inhabiting the grounds don’t hesitate to make themselves known.
There is rarely any sense that anyone involved with “The Nun” takes anything here too seriously, and audiences are advised to respond in kind. Our heroes, always splitting up at the first sign of danger, spend most of their time slowly spinning around with lanterns as habit-clad ghouls run around behind them rattling the furniture. Meanwhile, no rules of demonology seem to explain the nature of the evil at hand, with the various creatures at times defying all laws of physics and channeling the power of Hell itself, and at others proving easily dispatched by a good old-fashioned shotgun blast.
Farmiga and Bichir are as reliable as ever in their whisper-slight roles, yet it’s the charming Paquet who threatens to run away with the film, tackling his character as a sort of hipster Bruce Campbell amidst all the straight-faced gloom-and-doom. Indeed, “The Nun’s” most interesting touches come when the film’s craftsmen try to bring some anachronistic life to the identikit Gothic environs: The muddy grey color palette is broken up here and there by some bright teal wallpaper and Miami nightclub-esque pink lighting, and the decision to design an ancient relic containing the blood of Jesus Christ in the style of a knock-off Faberge egg is worth a good chuckle. Visual effects work is solid enough, but nothing in “The Nun” can hope to top the sheer fright factor of Bonnie Aarons as the titular spook, who accomplishes more with a wordless closeup than dozens of compositors can manage.