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Bad Habits - The Nun

September 10, 2018

     

 

     I know this is a few days late, but I didn’t get to see The Nun until Sunday. Spoilers ahead, and while I feel this should go without saying, do not under any circumstances take a kid to see this film.

 

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     The Nun is the third spin-off from The Conjuring series. Specifically, this is a prequel to The Conjuring 2 about the main villain in that film, the demon Valak. You don’t need to have seen either of Conjuring movies, but if you have, you know exactly what kind of movie you're in for.

        Set in 1952, a nun in Romania commits suicide, the ultimate sin in Catholicism, or at its presented as such in this movie. I’m admittedly not Catholic, so I can’t speak as to what the correct doctrine is, but I digress. In the morning the nun is found still hanging from the rope by a local man and the Vatican is informed. The Vatican sends Father Burke, an exorcist, to investigate the nun’s death. He brings along a sister who hasn’t taken her vows yet, Irene, and the two head to Romania.

        The film itself is a mixed bag, the setup is intriguing enough, but I was already interested in this film prior to its release because I’m a big fan of The Conjuring. What the Nun does get right, it gets really right. It’s very atmospheric, and the abbey itself, is unnerving throughout the film. There’s some fantastic set pieces, particularly a scene that takes place in a graveyard, that really manage to sell it. Part of the atmosphere is the music, which is a mix between the strings found in Psycho, and ominous chanting. There’s a scene in a chapel that uses the chanting to perfect effect, and while the scene is similar to one in the Conjuring 2, it’s still frightening.

        The story itself is decent. It’s interesting enough that I wanted to know what would happen next, but there’s a few spots where it misses the mark. The ending was a bit of a deus ex-machina that any horror fan will be able to figure out easy enough, and the characters make some very classic horror mistakes, such as splitting up in dark mysterious places. This is something that just confounds me in horror movies, but in all fairness, this may very well come from my days playing Dungeons and Dragons, where “never split the party” is a major ground rule. Every time I’ve been in a scenario where the party split up, someone died.

There’s a handful of things that don’t fit together as well as they should. For example, I don’t know if this counts as a plot hole, but it stood out to me. Burke finds some old book and learns that Valak is what’s haunting the abbey. In the Conjuring 2, learning Valak’s name is what gives Lorraine power over him, allowing her to cast Valak back to hell. The way it was presented, it seems that learning the name of any demon gives you power over it. Father Burke is an exorcist, and I feel like he should know this, but he never once uses Valak’s name in such a way. Like I said, I don’t know if that counts as a plot hole, but bare minimum it feels like an inconsistency in the setting.

     The backstory of the abbey I have mixed feelings on, part of it was interesting and part of it was eye rolling. In the dark ages a Duke built the abbey (originally a castle) and opened a gateway to summon Valak because, he was obsessed with the occult I guess? At the last-minute soldiers of the Church, who look remarkably like Templar Knights, take control of the castle and manage to close the gateway with the blood of Christ. I don’t mean that as a joke, I mean they literally have an artifact that contains the blood of Jesus Christ, one drop of which was enough to seal the gate. Gee, I wonder how they’re going to defeat Valak a second time. Anyway, a Church is built on top of gate to keep it sealed. This works for several hundred years until WWII happens, and a bomb hits the abbey, opening the seal again, better hope Christ’s blood is still nearby.

     Besides the deus ex-machina, The Nun’s biggest weakness is that it relies way too much on jump scares. Yes, both Conjuring movies have jump scares, but those are used infrequently. What makes them scary is the atmosphere and the tension building, and I personally find horror films like that are way scarier than just jump scares. Alien for example, one of my favorite films, it has jump scares, the chestburster scene probably being the most infamous one in history, but that’s not what really makes the film so unnerving, it’s everything else. Alien really plays on the claustrophobia of the Nostromo, the isolation on space and fear of the unknown, never giving a full look at the creature until the climax of the movie. Alien remains scary after you’ve seen it, I’m not sure if this film will be. A handful of jump scares combined with an atmospheric setting tend to make for memorable horror films, but too many of them come off as a crutch. The Nun would have been better with less jump scares and more of the atmospheric build up.

     Finally, there’s a few nitpick that probably won’t bother anyone else, but they bothered me. To an extent, I get setting the film in Romania. Eastern Europe is spooky, and Romania is the home of Dracula and all sorts of superstitious folklore; but it leaves us with one major problem. In 1952, Romania was stuck behind the Iron Curtain. After WWII, Romania was turned into a repressive communist dictatorship, along with the rest of Eastern Europe. This film has two foreigners just arrive, and eventually depart, with no hassle whatsoever. During the Cold War, you couldn’t just leave communist countries, over one thousand people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall and escape to West Germany. This feeds into our second and third problems. Father Burke and Sister Irene are sent by the Vatican to inspect a Catholic abbey. The thing is, Romania isn’t Catholic, it’s Eastern Orthodox, and while Orthodox Christianity is similar to Catholicism in many ways, it’s different enough that you can’t just pretend that region of the world is Catholic. Furthermore, just like in every communist country, religion was violently suppressed by the State. A LOT of Christians, Priests in particular, were imprisoned in gulags, tortured and murdered by the communists. 1952 is during Stalinist Russia, when the Eastern bloc was in its most oppressive state. In Romania, Catholicism was all but abolished, and it was already in the minority. There is simply no way in hell that the Gheorghiu-Dej would allow a Priest and a Nun to just waltz in, check up on an abbey, and waltz back out. Bare minimum they’d have been questioned by the secret police. Now I realize that most audiences know precisely jack-shit about Romania, and probably won’t care or notice this, but it was enough to hurt my suspension of disbelief at the front end. Granted, I know this because of personal reasons. My Grandfather’s family was Romanian, they came here when he was only six and spoke no English, he never saw his homeland again. My family had to flee Romania because of the rise of fascism, but they were never able to return because of communism. Again, I realize no one but me is going to care about that, but I at least want it noted that no one in Hollywood bothered to check the setting before setting the story there.

     The Nun is an effective horror film, I haven’t decided yet whether I’d call it good or just ok. It doesn’t match either of The Conjuring films, but that almost feels unfair because of how good those films were. I think it helps a lot that James Wan directed those, he didn’t direct this. He worked on the story, and enough of him bleeds through to put this above most standard schlock horror films. If you like these kinds of movies, you’ll probably enjoy the Nun, and I definitely think it’s worth seeing. But if you don’t like these kind of movies, you’ll probably hate this. And for those of you thinking about taking your kid to see this? Don’t. I know you think “but my kid can handle it,” and I’m telling you, they can’t handle this one. It may not stay with you long afterwards the way The Conjuring does, but The Nun has enough in it that it will unnerve you.

 

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