by Hope Madden
When we were four, my sister and I wandered off at the Toledo zoo. Nuns found us and reunited us—via lost and found? I don’t remember—with the larger Madden clan. And that’s the thing about nuns: they are either entirely wonderful or entirely terrifying. There is no middle ground.
Corin Hardy knows that. With that knowledge, The Hallows director crafts his little part of The Conjuring universe with a history lesson on that scary sister, The Nun.
His film, written by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle, It) from a story by James Wan, takes us back to the 1950s when the Vatican called upon a priest with a specific set of skills. Fr. Burke (Demián Bichir) investigates the suicide of a cloistered nun in remote Romania, bringing along a novitiate nun, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga – little sister to Conjuring star Vera).
You think nuns are creepy? Well, they fit right in at crumbling old Romanian abbeys. Hardy and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre make glorious use of the location, and then create richly shadowed castle interiors suitable for Dracula himself.
Hardy throws any number of really eerie visuals onscreen as Farmiga’s novitiate (a nun who hasn’t yet taken her final vows) descends into the demonic labyrinth, while Father Burke fights demons (personal and literal) just outside the gate.
Velvety shadows and jump scares, medieval witchery and the now-quaint idea that the Catholic Church can save us—Hardy balances all these items with nostalgia, humor and a fun dose of Conjuring universe odes.
Farmiga brings enough salt-of-the-earthiness with her innocence to make Sr. Irene relatable. Bichir seems less suited to the role of holy man, but as an investigator who smells something rotten, he works out well.
The real treat is Jonas Bloquet as Frenchie, the French-Canadian transport living in Romania who can carry a torch into catacombs with the best of them. He’s funny, his scenes keeping the film from veering into committing the sin of taking itself too seriously and losing its audience.
Where the film comes up short is in imagination. Mainly, it bears far too strong a resemblance to another Irishman’s Catholic horror, Devil’s Doorway, which follows two priests investigating strange phenomenon at a convent only to find something sinister in the tunnels beneath.
Though Devil’s Doorway lacked the visual flair, budget and humor of The Nun, it sidestepped the nostalgia that casts the Catholic Church in such unvarnished light, so it felt a bit more relevant and less disposable.
Still, with a slight, sometimes silly storyline and an awful lot of atmosphere, Hardy manages an entertaining if forgettable 90 minutes.