Monday, September 10, 2018

"The Nun"

-Sister Irene, repeatedly

In my review of the overrated Annabelle: Creation (which dummies on the internet apparently think is good), I said the following:
The most egregious element, however, is a brief scene shoehorned into the first act (or so) of the film in which Sister Charlotte, the girls' guardian, shows Annabelle's father a photograph of herself with some other nuns, one of which is actually Valak, the demon from The Conjuring 2. This is obviously done not just as a reference but as a piece of promotion for 2018's upcoming "The Nun" film about the character, as the scene bears no other real relevance to the plot or characterisation of this film. It's clearly another pathetic attempt to rip off Disney/Marvel's successful, yet increasingly bland and soulless, "cinematic universe" method, as Warner Bros. already tried (and presumably has failed) to do with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Universal is apparently attempting with its dare-I-dignify-it-by-naming-it "Dark Universe" franchise.
Well the Dark Universe is dead and buried, like Father Burke nearly was, the DC superhero films ("Extended Universe" isn't an official name, apparently) are being carried through the lone strength of Wonder Woman, and King Arthur's definitely still marooned on the Isle of Albion, but with a box office gross amounting to 600% of its budget as of my writing, The Nun seems to have shown that Warner Bros. has got the moneymaking franchise it was dreaming of. If only they could copy Marvel's knack for making lots of money while simultaneously making films which, while genuinely good only very rarely, generally aren't completely accurately describable as "utter shit".

It's surely needless to say that The Nun is bad. The script is extremely lazy, the cinematography is unreliable, the tone is wildly inconsistent and the editing is at points totally appalling. As with Annabelle: Creation, the best thing it has going for it is its cast, who probably could have done something interesting with a better screenplay.

On paper, the premise of The Nun could be intriguing: a grizzled priest and a young nun novice are sent to a remote abbey to investigate why one of the Sisters recently killed herself. The isolated abbey is reviled by the locals and is frustrating to access; it turns out that the convent is in its entirety long dead, and a malevolent intelligence has been imitating its ongoing operation to lure a candidate to the abbey to enable it to escape its confines and export its evil to the wider world.

In all honesty, I liked the implicit ideas of parts of The Nun as I was watching it. All the nuns are dead; the characters are just seeing visions and hearing voices. Are they being guided by heaven or misled by hell? But why bother developing that into an interesting screenplay when you could just string a bunch of jumpscare set-pieces together and call it a day? The marketing sells itself: it has a nice simple title, the memorable image of the villain from The Conjuring 2 and the connection to the wider franchise to stick on the poster. Hordes of teenagers or, as was the case in my screening, bored university students, are looking for just this kind of thing to wile away an evening with some cheap thrills.

To its infinitesimally limited credit, The Nun has maybe one and a half decent set-pieces: one in which Father Burke is buried alive and to an extent one in which a shadow stalks around the walls of a chapel during an apparent prayer. Other than that it's Conjuring jumpscares at their most shallow, largely involving Valak running at one of the protagonists while going "Raar!", a zombie nun falling on or lunging at a protagonist while going "Raar!", or pale claw-like hands bursting out of things and groping people's faces. This is set against the characters mindlessly wandering around the abbey to little apparent purpose.

A few other memorable moments include a very old nun in a veil turning out to be long dead (but this was another idea better in concept than execution) and an absurd flashback to the Middle Ages in which a group of crusaders straight out of a 1950s historical epic seal Valak away using a vial of the blood of none other than Jesus Christ Himself, which is kept in an object which looks like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Sister Irene, our other hero, later uses this to defeat Valak again by spitting it on his face.

While the opening of the film was unimpressive, with two nuns seemingly pointlessly opening a door they knew Valak was behind only to immediately get killed, I thought everything from Father Burke's introduction to his and Irene's arrival at the abbey and their exploration of the cold room and graveyard was adequate. They seemed to have a surprisingly easy time of travel through early 50s communist Romania, traveling to a secluded Catholic abbey in an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country, but I suppose they had to match it to that line from Annabelle: Creation in which Sister Charlotte, who was nowhere to be seen in this, said that she used to be there.

It was mostly after night fell on that first day that things started to go badly wrong, such as Maurice's uninteresting encounter with the demonic image of the dead nun, although as I mentioned Father Burke's premature burial was a decent idea. That being said, the idea that the slight, delicate-looking Sister Irene would be able to dig him up in time was absurd. I suppose you can attribute that to demonic magic or something. Father Burke has a storyline about a boy who died after an exorcism, but it doesn't serve his character development because he doesn't undergo any. None of them do, really, but I don't think the film cared.

The thing that perplexes me most about the film is the casting of Taissa Farmiga as Irene given that she is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine in The Conjuring and its sequel. I was getting the impression that, having already chucked so much of the Warrens' real-life story out the window (such as the fact that they were massive crackpots), they were going to make this the fictionalised backstory of Lorraine and that they'd deliberately cast an actress who looked like Vera Farmiga to set this up. Imagine my surpise when the credits revealed that they'd cast an actual relative as an unrelated character. It turns out that this was simply a coincidence, or perhaps nepotism. It seemed like a wasted opportunity to me, especially because I thought Taissa Farmiga was decent in the role and got the impression she was playing a very similar character to (fictional) Lorraine. I was almost worried Maurice was going to turn out to be Ed somehow, but no, he was just that guy you see in the footage in the first Conjuring, Probably an even more laborious tie-in than the one Annabelle: Creation made to Annabelle the original.

In terms of filmmaking, on a handful of occasions the camera work and lighting did engage me, but at many other times it was flat and empty, completely denuding "scary" scenes of tension. The film in general is too tensionless to be scary; the scariest part, the live burial, happens in the first act of the film. Constantly barraging us with spooky nuns standing ominously in corridors before bursting forth going "Raar!" doesn't add much, nor do the endless shots of people being telekinetically shoved away into the walls. The other issue with engagement is that when Maurice is reintroduced in the third act of the film he is used almost exclusively for comedy, with the result that the film's tone abandons almost any effort at suspense and seems to intentionally embrace being farcical.

However, as I mentioned before, the most purely incompetent element of the film is the editing. At certain points the film smashes back and forth between shots and characters without room for establishment or pacing. An absolutely atrocious moment occurs in which Irene is being informed by the (vision) nun regarding the abbey's history; at one point, when the war is mentioned, the footage smash cuts to a shot of bombs falling on the castle, and a different piece of music suddenly starts blaring out with the hastiest of fade-ins, before smashing back. In the same conversation, the shot holds on Irene's face, cuts to a mid shot of the two at a table, and then a second later smashes back to the close up of Irene; I suspect they had to re-record dialogue and had no usable footage of the other nun actually saying it. A similar bit of awkward cutting happens when Father Burke is relating his unfortunate exorcism of years past, which suggests to me that some of the film's problems come from, surprise surprise (it's Warner Bros.), studio interference insisting upon more exposition and/or padding to bulk out the film and make brainless shitheads pay attention. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the material about the Holy Hand Grenade full of Jesus' blood, the portal in the floor and the evil Duke being done in by crusaders was not in the original script. I mean, Jesus' actual blood?

I find the weird Catholic overtones of the film odd, but then again I did in The Conjuring 2 as well. I'm from a nonreligious family and went to a Protestant school, so I have little formal knowledge of Catholicism, and as such all the stuff about nuns taking vows and so on feels a little out of place to me. How come you never see the Anglican church fighting demons? Probably too busy organising church fĂȘtes and pretending that they don't also have a history of systemic child abuse. I also find bringing God into horror films a bit weird because for some reason the problem of evil seems to seem more problematic than ever if God isn't just letting history take its horrible course but is also letting fallen angels wantonly run amok on Earth. That's not really a problem with the film, just something that I always find slightly odd in exorcism-related films. As a comment I read pointed out, if these films operate within a Catholic universe then consecrated red wine ought to work just as well as Jesus' actual blood, incidentally, because theologically they're the same thing. Again, I don't come from a Catholic background so the idea of communion has always seemed incredibly alien to me, but there you go. I don't think McGuffins were something the franchise was crying out for, but now not only are they present but they're going the whole hog. Couldn't it have just been a local saint's blood or something?

Why am I still writing about this? The Nun is bad and I couldn't even honestly recommend it to die-hard The Conjuring completionists like myself. The film has made plenty of money, there's supposedly a third Annabelle in the works and Wan's working on a Conjuring 3 script. Yet while Warner Bros. now knows that they can comfortably use these films to make big returns on small investments, they ought to think of the kind of money they could be making if they actually bothered to invest just a little more to produce the time, creativity and effort to actually make these films good. Well-made films can still be cheap and will generally have a better return than bad films due to positive word of mouth and voluntary publicity. They need to learn from Disney-Marvel that if you really want the big money from a cinematic "universe" then more than half the films in it can't be complete garbage.

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