Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Films of 2018: The Nun

In the prologue for The Nun (2018), the latest entry in the popular The Conjur-verse, the camera lands on the image of a crucifix hanging on a wall inside a haunted abbey in Romania. 

With a rote, almost mechanical motion -- like the hands on a clock -- this cruficix methodically "ticks" over into the upside down position.

An upside down crucifix is a familiar image in horror films, of course, but the oddly automatic nature of the pivoting crucifix here suggests, at least to this reviewer, the idea of a franchise on remote control, mechanically moving from one formulaic moment to the next. Even the presence of Evil in this cinematic world is, by now, familiar, and automatic.

Alas, the rest of the film lives up to the prophecy of the mechanical crucifix, proving dull, robotic and nonsensical. Nothing makes any sense in the movie, and the demonic nun's powers are so incredible annd fearsome that it becames clear to the viewer, after one particular fantasy scene, that there is no way the nun can be defeated.  It obeys no consistent set of rules.

Of all the films in the Conjuring universe, The Nun is the least satisying, at least so far.

"It's something unholy!"

In St. Corta Abbey in Romania, in 1952, two nuns attempt to stop the demonic entity locked behind a wood door (and behind a carving, which reads "God Ends Here."). The attempt fails, and one desperate nun hangs herself, rather than becoming possessed by the dark evil lurking in the shadows.

To help solve the mystery of this apparent suicide, the Vatican sends a "miracle hunter" priest, Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and a young novitiate, Sister Irene (Taissa Fermiga) to Romania to investigate. A French-Canadian guide, "Frenchie" (Jonas Bloquet) agrees, only reluctantly to take them, to the haunted grounds. The abbey itself is surrounded by crucifixes, as if to keep an unholy evil locked inside.

The ruined, dilipidated abbey holds many dark secrets, not the least of which is the presence of Valak (Bonnie Aarons), a demon who prefers to take the form of a nun with a ghostly pallor.  Using a relic that holds the blood of Christ, Father Burke, Sister Irene, and Frenchie attempt to defeat the demon once and for all, and close a gateway to Hell.

"You have a knack for this, sister."

Despite its problems in believability and consistency, The Nun earns points for its gloomy, claustrophobic nature. The film is unrelentingly dark, and the overall impression created is that the film's central location, the Romanian abbey, is a place where darkness has eclipsed all light. 

The oppressive vibe is a perfect way to express the film's horror elements, but The Nun is frequently dull, its boredom quotient punctuated only by some (admittedly) impressive jump scares. The film's greatest trespass, however, involves its villainous characer, the titular nun, or as we already know it, Valak the Demon.  

If we are to believe our eyes, this creature possesses the fearsome abililty to rewrite reality itself. It is thus not a demon, but a god.

In one scene, for example, Valak tricks Burke into a graveyard, and uses some unseen force to push the priest into an open grave. Burke falls into the hole, which transmutes into a sealed coffin. Then, Valak not only traps the priest under six feet of dirt -- which appear from nowhere -- but under perfectly grown grass as well. Valak than erects a personalized tombstone (replete with carving) over the grave for Burke.  

This sequence is not a dream, or an hallucination. It actually happens. 

Again, the demon uses an invisible force (telekinesis?) to push its enemy into that hole. It then uses some unknown mechanism to nail shut the wooden coffin (replete with a top, which wasn't there before, either). Next, the demon puts in the pounds of dirt to pack the grave, grows the green grass over the plot, creates a tombsone from whole cloth, andm finally, etches that tombstone with Burke's name. 

I stress these details, because this is a re-ordering of our reality on a fantastic scale.

Yet, during the rest of the movie, when Valak attacks main characters, the demon does so by physically choking them.  So Valak: why not re-arrange reality again instead of going to all the trouble of actually wringing a human being's neck? 

Unfortunately, the aforementioned graveyard scene pretty much ruins any sense of reality The Nun attempts to create.  

First, the scene makes no sense, even if it is something Valak is capable of doing.  

Why, for example, would Valak carve Burke's name on the tombstone, if the demon doesn't wish for Irene to rescue him? Burke attempts to ring a bell attached to the grave, to prove he is buried alive to his young assistant, and Valak vexes Irene by ringing all such similar bells in the graveyard, so she can't locate Burke's grave.

Okay, but you know what else would have made the priest hard to find?  A tombstone that didn't have his name etched on it.

Secondly, since Valak can transport, re-arrange and create matter out of nothing, why does a wooden door stop it from wreaking havoc in the first place?  Based on the demon's powers, as diagrammed in the graveyard scene, Valak could just "unwrite" the very existence of the door. 

Why does Valak stay in the abbey? Again, based on the incredible powers on display in the cemetery scene, the demon could just relocate the abbey, through time and space, wherever it wished to go.

Finally, why does the blood of Christ stop Valak? Valak could just re-arrange matter, and use a kind of demon wind to keep the blood from splattering the Nun's face.  

(And, let's face it, the blood of Christ, the movie's get-out-of-hell-free card, doesn't do its job anyway, since Valak doesn't die from it , but merely possesses another character).

The long and short of this discussion is that once The Nun gets to the wholly fantastical (and, sadly, wholly unnecessary) scene of Valak creating a "buried alive" moment for Father Burke, it never recovers any sense of reality. The graveyard scene is a jump-the-shark, nuke-the-fridge moment that the movie never overcomes.

This is a horror movie in which the monster can do anything it wishes, and is, therefore, utterly invincible. The heroes, accordingly, are no match for it. To suggest otherwise is bullshit, and the movie knows it. Any plans the characters come up with to handle their plight pale before the ability to re-arrange and create matter.

Also, Valak isn't scary in The Nun.  Valak was scary in The Conjuring 2, by contrast, but is not fiflmed in such a way here as to be particularly terrifying or monstrous. The film is like a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel where you know what Freddy looks like, and so aren't terrified by him anymore. 

But Freddy had a personality and a sense of humor. 

Valak has neither.

Adding insult to injury, the film's final scenes strain to connect this film to The Conjuring, wrapping up everything in a neat little bow for the dullards among us who couldn't keep track.  Because, the last note viewers should always leave a horror film on is this: REMEMBER, THIS IS A FRANCHISE!!!!

Snark aside, The Conjuring franchise has demonstrated a remarkable ability to self-diagnose, and course correct. The Conjuring 2 was superior to The Conjuring, and Annabelle: Creation was better than its progenitor, Annabelle. Perhaps The Nun can fit into this pattern as well. The film made more than enough money at the box office to guarantee a sequel, so now the filmmakers simply have to find a story worth telling, and one that features a scary monster with coherent and graspable powers.

"What's the opposite of a miracle?" One character asks another in The Nun.  

My answer? 

The fact that The Nun had so much good will from viewers, reviewers, and franchise fans, going in, and then completely squandered it with this meandering, incoherent, mechanical narrative.  

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