By just about any measure, “The Nun” is a subpar movie, at best. What plot it has is inconsistent, and its characters are little more than a name, a face and a generic backstory, yet after a summer that began with “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” and ended with “Slender Man,” there’s a playfulness to the horror that’s easy to appreciate. Towards the end of the first act, during a lengthy sequence revolving around a Black Plague-era cemetery, I wrote in my notebook, “I don’t know who any of these people are, what they’re doing or why I’m supposed to care.” At the end of that same sequence, I wrote simply, “Well, that was fun.”
That’s the duality of “The Nun” in a snapshot. It has undeniable problems — more on that in a moment — but it’s fun in a way those aforementioned movies nix for po-faced tedium. If nothing else, it proves that a little bit of personality goes a long way — though I’ll add that this is the second release of the year, after “Winchester,” in which a character shoots a ghost. I didn’t care for it then, and I don’t care for it now.
In another welcome change from the norm, director Corin Hardy (“The Hallow”) makes an admirable attempt in the first half to focus more on building tension and dread than on assaulting his viewers with sudden blasts of sound. It isn’t devoid of jump scares, but in what may be the greatest twist of 2018, they’re occasionally sacrificed in favor of dramatic irony — we see the Nun looming in the background, but the characters remain blissfully unaware, resulting in a much scarier scene. Of course, I may be biased; after I saw “The Conjuring 2,” the Nun stuck with me, and I lost a good deal of sleep.
However, it doesn’t take long to notice that despite Hardy’s competent direction and despite those fun touches, Gary Dauberman’s (“It”) script doesn’t do much else than ferry us from one scare to another. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final act, which succumbs to its lack of strong foundation and becomes an out-of-nowhere “Da Vinci Code”-style treasure hunt that’s completely at odds with the haunted castle horror flick that led up to it.
The movie’s greatest weakness is its writing — beyond just the general feeling of plotlessness. Several characters are laden with exposition-filled monologues that aren’t unfamiliar ground for this series but are more perfunctory here than they have been elsewhere. Unlike similar scenes in “The Conjuring,” it’s simple information vomit instead of answers to questions. There’s no catharsis to gaining this knowledge because the story is so muddled that we’re not sure what questions we’re supposed to ask. It’s like the endless march of “Lost” rip-offs from the late 2000s and early 2010s; the premise is hypothetically interesting, but it’s playing its cards so close to the chest in service of some Big Mystery that it’s hard to get invested.
More importantly, for all the fun it is in the moment, the movie misses out on what attracted people to the Nun and the “Conjuring” universe as a whole in the first place. In “The Conjuring 2,” the Nun was a surprisingly character-based scare, a profaned image of what should have been a holy figure that was meant as an attack on Lorraine Warren’s faith. It’s a simple idea — a villain tries to turn a hero’s strengths against her — but it’s that sort of good-versus-evil simplicity that’s central to the series’ appeal. “The Nun” follows in the footsteps of “Annabelle” and even the otherwise engaging “Annabelle: Creation” and forsakes that accessibility in favor of lore dumps and horror tropes that never work as well.