By: Kevin Jordan
Holy shit. (Their words, but who am I to argue?).
My first grade teacher was Sister Julianna. No last name – she was married to God and God does not have a last name. Like Prince. Which is kind of ironic when you think about how weird some religious dudes get about their new wives taking their last names. What was I saying? Oh, right. Sister Julianna was a catholic nun and I attended catholic school through third grade. One day, she called my parents to report that I had been disruptive in class. It is quite possible that I was disruptive on other days as well, but I doubt that, because a catholic school teacher/nun was not going to sit on multiple offenses in 1985. By then, beating disruptive children with yardsticks or paddles was no longer acceptable, even in a faith not exactly known for restraining violent punishments, so ratting out unruly children for even slight offenses was the only relief outlet for wildly underpaid and cloistered women charged with babysitting hyperactive six-year olds all day-week-month-year.
This happened within shouting distance of Halloween, so my dad decided that if the church, erm…school, could not get medieval on my ass to teach me a lesson, he would. We are not talking corporal punishment here. No, my dad went far more devious with this particular sentence. With my Halloween costume already purchased (I was going to be a Transformer), he grounded me from trick-or-treating. Short of setting Christmas presents on fire or forcing a child to become an altar boy, there is no worse punishment for a first grader. We could get into the various first, second, and third order consequences of dad’s decision, but that discussion is for a therapy session, not a movie review. I suppose there is some poetry in taking away the one night a year synonymous with Satan for misbehaving in catholic school. And, I did learn my lesson. That lesson being if you’re going to fuck around in class (or at all), wait until after Halloween or be less obvious when you do it. And, definitely don’t have a catholic nun as a teacher.
(Side note: If you think that was the last time I ever got busted for being disruptive in class, here is an example of how well I learned the lesson my dad was trying to teach. As a high school freshman, I once had an angry math teacher dare several of us to take an exam because we were chatting during a review for that exam. I took her up on the offer. Now you know part of why my reviews sound the way they do.)
The point of the story is that I am a recovering catholic whose inner six-year old has a bit of a soft spot for movies that poke some fun at catholic mythology. Demons, relics, holy warriors, exorcisms, flaming swords – there is no better fantasy source from which to draw. The Nun is the latest film to delve into the millennia-long holy war between heaven’s and hell’s warriors and is about what you would expect. There is a twist though. The Nun is part of The Conjuring series, acting as an origin story for real-life, self-proclaimed demonologist (and alleged fraud) Lorraine Warren. Luckily, even the staunchest of Warren fans should recognize this film as Season of the Witch-level nonsense.
The set-up is that a demon has been imprisoned in the floor of a Romanian abbey and the only thing keeping it trapped there are a bunch of cloistered nuns who take turns praying 24/7. The film opens with the only two remaining nuns standing at a door inscribed with “God ends here” in Latin, so of course they immediately start praying. The two are searching for a holy relic that will reseal a crack in the floor caused by errant WWII bombs. Nun One opens the door and scary-movie cliches occur. Just before a bloodied Nun One is dragged back into the no-God room, she hands Nun Two a special key and says “you know what you must do,” that being commit suicide by hanging because the demon needs a human body to possess. Nevermind that Nun One is in fact a human body, a mortal sin must be committed to prevent the demon from escaping. Some days later, a French-Canadian delivery man who is non-ironically called Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) throughout the film discovers the hanged body. After the Vatican is notified, they send Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and nun-in-training Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate, despite knowing full-well what demon is at the abbey and that it took several knights and some drops of Jesus Christ’s blood to imprison the demon the last time. Rereading this paragraph really makes six-year-old me smile.
Other things that made me smile while watching this film mostly had to do with the audience reactions. Horror films and comedies are usually my favorite screenings because I get a real-time look at how the rest of the audience is taking in the film (action films are typically way too loud to hear anything quieter than a jet engine, let alone audience members). I know everyone is on the same page when everyone is reacting similarly and simultaneously throughout the film. For me, the best part of the movie was when Father Burke started following a small bell being dragged across the floor as if he were a mouse following cheese. That scene in and of itself was ridiculous enough to merit derisive laughter (and it did), but an audience member called out “Nope” during the scene and the entire audience burst out laughing.
The other great moment of shared audience joy was when the on-screen trio finds the relic and the following exchange occurs between Frenchie and Father Burke.
Burke: “This relic contains the blood of Christ.”
Frenchie: “Jesus Christ?! Holy shit!”
Burke: “The holiest.”
Did Father Burke just refer to Jesus Christ’s blood as holy shit? *Rereading* Yes. Yes he did and my six-year old self was smirking and nodding.
I have to give kudos to that bit of dialogue for being hilarious and then recalling those kudos because this movie took itself pretty seriously and the comedic relief was really out of place. Not as out of place as many other horror flicks, but still enough to realize how hopelessly out of his league was director Corin Hardy (directing his second feature film).
As much as I enjoyed the B-movie-ness of this film, it was impossible not to notice how inept some of the components of the film were, especially the writing. I cannot nail the film too much for including every standard horror cliche, but I can for the film having no idea how to wield those cliches. There were moments that could be considered creepy, though all were neutralized by their predictability. We were told early on that the demon disguised itself as nun in order to stalk the halls of the abbey, so there was never a surprise when a mysterious nun or the demon nun would suddenly appear or disappear. Symbols could be found scattered throughout the film, but were used as if the set designers added them there because they looked creepy, not because a writer understood even the basic meaning behind them (for example, an Ouroboros is seen on multiple occasions and means nothing in this film). The story never gives the demon a goal or motivation beyond “I’m a demon” and never bothers to explain why the nuns did not know where the relic was (despite it being a known thing literally kept within the abbey). It gives the barest minimum explanation for why Irene and Burke are specifically chosen for this mission, and then only to be used as the deus ex machina because the cloistered nuns forgot where they put their holy hand grenade.
If you were paying attention, you might be asking how this is an origin story for Lorraine Warren when the main character is named Irene. The Nun is set nineteen years before The Conjuring, both women have visions, and Lorraine is played by Taissa’s older sister (by twenty-one years) Vera. Clearly, they are the same woman and this was an inexplicably unnoticed gaffe. Fortunately, we are talking about a film featuring a shotgun-wielding French-Canadian battling a demon nun in Romania, so Irene-Lorraine; potato-pot-ah-to.
The Nun is not a terrible movie as horror movies go and it does earn points for spending a lot of running time actually showing us the demon nun. While the exposition in the film runs on the really heavy (and often irrelevant) side, it at least forms a straight line when you lay it out. But it is a horror movie that provides little in the way of horror thrills and is evidence that the Conjuring series is well past taking its original characters seriously. If there is anything I took away from this film it is that sometimes talking during something serious can be a good thing. Please dad, just put the lighter down.
Rating: Ask for twelve dollars back unless you still have not learned your lesson.