Directed by Corin Hardy
Starring Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, and Jonas Bloquet
Runtime: 1 hour and 36 minutes
MPAA rating: R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images
by Sandy DeVito
I liked Corin Hardy's sophomore effort about as much as I expected to; that is, more than The Conjuring films that have preceded it (1, 2) and not as much as I was hoping to. James Wan, producer of this film and the director of both Conjuring films, was quoted saying this film was meant to be "inspired by Hammer", the British film studio famous for its cheesy, grotesque, genre-pushing horror films, mostly in the '60s and '70s, all of which I'm a huge fan of, running the gamut of legitimately great Horror of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out to fun exploitation The Vampire Lovers, to contemporary efforts at gothica The Woman in Black. I mean, honestly, the bar was set too high as soon as I heard that. Hammer's special because though many have tried to mimic their particular style and wheelhouse, their films remain one-of-a-kind in atmosphere, performance, and horror credentials. I could see and appreciate the ways this film wanted to be like a Hammer film, but ultimately it falls short, lacking the flair, content to be a sort of cardboard 2D cut-out of Hammer's grand 3D horrors. Still, there were things here I enjoyed.
The story is kept pretty simple; as this is a prequel, you don't need to have seen any of the previous films to understand what's happening. Suspending any hope you may have of this being "serious" horror will definitely help your enjoyment of it, I'm gonna say that right now. In no way is this meant to be art-house horror like The VVitch or Hereditary; Hardy's film clearly desires to be schlock horror, closer to nunsploitation/a Catholic exploitation film than any of the previous films in this franchise. I loved that about it. A priest (Demián Bichir), a novitiate (Taissa Farmiga, who is starting to look so much like her sister Vera it's sort of unnerving) and a super-hot rapscallion French-Canadian named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet, helloooooooo, that guy is stupid good-looking) are sent to a deserted abbey said to be haunted by a malevolent spirit, after the last remaining nun is found dead, hung by the neck. There they discover the spirit manifesting in the shape of a, you guessed it, EVIL NUN, is in fact a demon named Valak. Together they work to banish Valak back to the hell pit whence it came.
I really appreciate what Hardy is trying to do here, though sadly I don't think he entirely succeeds. I like his other film, The Hallow, a little more than this, but it has similar pacing and editing problems. The scenes sort of skip around abruptly without any real sense of continuity or interesting exposition. There is moody atmosphere here aplenty, though, something I feel both of The Conjuring films sorely lack; a misty graveyard, ghostly nuns, a haunted abbey, tons of candlelight, Taissa Farmiga's eyes shining like twin matches in a dark pool of water in several scenes, an ornate spooky key, forbidden books of ancient knowledge, a literal reliquary containing the blood of Jesus, a literal fucking evil demon nun, I was into all of it. Is this a scary movie? If you ask me, no, not really. It's ooky-spooky and pretty fun to watch, though. It plays with tongue-in-cheek moments of comedy, too, which work more than I would have expected them to, though they occasionally feel too contemporary for the setting. The moment where Frenchie sits exhausted at the bar with the unearthed graveyard cross resting beside him felt like a direct nod to the Castlevania influence Wan has also mentioned. That shit was fun! I liked that it wanted to be fun.
The subject matter limits the project in frustrating ways, something I feel towards pretty much every exorcism movie/nunsploitation movie/Catholic horror movie in general. You sort of have to be functioning from a place of "Catholicism is good!" to not see these kinds of films as complete satire, and I do not think Catholicism is good, not at all. Catholicism is evil, capitalist patriarchy at its dirtiest. So any sort of good/evil battle in a film with strong Catholic leanings becomes a sort of farce of itself to me. Like I said, this sort of feels like it's making fun of itself sometimes, which I think is the right way to go with this, but it just doesn't take it quite far enough; this is The Conjuring universe after all, and both of the previous films featuring the Warrens are heavily pro-Catholic in my view. In order to believe in the validity of the Warren's claims (a couple that really existed and really professed to have said powers), you have to believe Catholicism is real. So I'm inherently against the franchise for that reason.
Another thing: please stop using pentagrams as a symbol of evil in pop culture films. Any symbol can be subverted and used for something bad (look what happened with the swastika), but a pentagram's inherent meaning is as good/light/positive as they come. As a practicing witch, I hang pentagrams in doorways and in my home because I believe they are a symbol of good energy and protection, and what you will into the world manifests itself. It is not a symbol that belongs to evil nuns.
Ultimately, Hardy's film feels like an homage to other things without ever really making the effort to be something of its own. I would be okay with watching it again, though. It's benign, like the Beistle paper skeletons hanging on my wall, nice to look at if you're into that kind of thing, nothing particularly haunting, not a masterpiece, just a fun-enough diversion. I also wanted to mention I literally titled my notes for this film "NUN THOTS". And as an end note: the people in my theater were very chatty/noisy for the duration of this film. I feel I would have enjoyed it more and certainly gotten a better feel for it if people had been polite enough to be quiet. I get it, horror films make people nervous. A natural way for humans to dissipate their anxiety is to chat, laugh, make a snide remark, and otherwise talk out loud. This behavior, however, is an antithesis to the theater experience. The movie theater is not your fucking living room, where you can kick off your shoes, chew your popcorn loudly with your mouth open, and continue a running commentary that everyone around you can hear for the entire 1 hr 36 minute runtime of this fucking film. The reason theaters will die, if they do, will be because lots of people don't really seem to know how to watch a movie in a theater anymore, ruining these experiences for those who want to. And that fucking sucks.