If you’ve seen one schlocky horror movie, you’ve seen them all. This notion isn’t quite true, but the mindset can help you decipher what makes the genre tick. Too many scary movies have featured creepy, ancient settings, doe-eyed female protagonists, daytime exposition and nights of increasingly intense frights, rooms filled with covered furniture that you know the idiot characters will pull off one by one and large, ominous shadows from which supernatural beings can pop to and fro.
We all know what to expect when we go into a horror movie, and a good horror director knows what we’re expecting, too. An effective scene will play with our expectations about when and where the freaky beast will appear. Throw in a jump scare too early and there won’t be enough tension; too late, and the fear will have already dissipated, the adrenaline grown stale.
James Wan’s excellent “The Conjuring” films have excelled at breathing fresh life into the ghostly possession subgenre, complete with a throwback, gothic aesthetic and chilling vocal soundtracks. But it’s the wonderful camerawork — slow, winding pans, achingly long shots, uncomfortable angles — that solidified the series as the golden standard for a solid frightfest. While the first spin-offs building the “Conjuring” universe, “Annabelle” and “Annabelle: Creation,” were blasé and dime-a-dozen, Corin Hardy’s “The Nun” is cut from the same cloth as Wan’s originals, making for a visually captivating experience.
“The Nun” takes place in 1952, though aside from a few quick shots of cars and a radio, it might as well take place in the 1700s. A priest (Demián Bichir) is sent by the Vatican to a historic abbey deep in the rural heart of Romania to investigate a nun’s suicide. Even Dracula would find this place unsettling, and the locals avoid the place like the plague. Nearly every inch of the grounds and interior is covered with various crucifixes, many of which also function as gravestones. Quaint!
Alongside a nun-in-training plagued with visions (Taissa Farmiga) and a dashing delivery boy (Jonas Bloquet), the priest heads to the abbey and quickly discovers that something unholy has occurred.
Here’s where “The Nun” disappoints: it doesn’t make any effort to veer from the well-beaten path of countless horror films before it. Many of the scary set pieces are slight variations on universally accepted phobias. Of course the movie includes creepy snakes. And of course it works. (I hate snakes.)
Surprisingly, the titular creature can be rather lackluster. When viewed from the periphery, as a shadow or figure lurking in the corner, she is shockingly effective. But the larger her presence becomes, the more her allure fades. Like an online catfisher, the nun ruins everything by meeting face-to-face.
Still, props should be given when due, and Hardy wrung as much pizzazz as he could from this trite story. One scene in particular, where Farmiga and the abbey’s band of surviving nuns must pray in perpetuity to fend off the demon, is visually and musically arresting. Moments like this are what give “The Nun” its legs, even when its most uninteresting aspects try to trip it up.