Valak the Defiler. The Profane. Valac, les marquis des serpents.
Those are the names of the demon at the brittle center of Corin Hardy’s otherwise delightful spinoff and prequel, “The Nun”. As famous demons go, Valak is one of the most devious, with enough goofs and quirks that fit perfectly alongside those of the franchise’s stable of supremely bankable demoniacs. Very few I know have persisted the fright of her sprawling out of that dank canvas in James Wan’s “The Conjuring 2”. That scene is unflinchingly spooky, a stroke of collective genius between Wan’s skill of crafting dread, Vera Farmiga’s performance, and Bonnie Aarons’ freakishly high cheekbones. At that moment, a star-in-nun-regalia is born—out of a jump scare, sure, but a star nonetheless.
In the minds of WB execs, that merits an entire film about how the demonic nun came to be. What, exactly, does Valak defile? What motivates her profanities? Will she champion, like all other les marquis des serpents of our time have, the Snake Emoji? O.K., maybe not the last one—that is a litmus test made specifically for wenches, which I guess still applies here, but I digress.
The film goes to far-out reaches to answer two of those questions without ever actually answering them in a story that’s supposed to unfurl the titular demon’s origins. We know from her debut in the second “Conjuring” film that her hobbies include ridin’ dirty as a master manipulator, lurking from behind unsuspecting clairvoyants, and making it known that she’d missed about six appointments with her dentist. The new film’s screenplay, which credits “It” and “Annabelle: Creation” writer Gary Dauberman, has some of those nailed down but fails to remind us of why Valak wants to suck the soul out of you.
The cop-out explanation is that Valak is evil for evil’s sake—which I guess makes sense for a medieval-old demon like herself. That renders her frightful, to be sure, but not compelling. True that much the same, Pennywise likes to do evil things for evil’s sake, but at least we know he likes doing it, as though devilry is a vocation that gifts him with gratification when the working day is done. And Michael Myers, who personifies pure evil, isn’t evil itself. He’s rather a vessel, a young child in a mason’s body frame, stricken in one way or another by the unwaning urge to kill. But what am I to make of Valak? None of ninety-six minutes of “The Nun” tells me anything.
Looking at the talent involved in the film’s making, it’s hard not to feel frustrated. Corin Hardy’s first feature, a searing little Irish shocker called “The Hallow”, is the film that’s lost in the franchise-building machinations of “The Nun”. One can sense that Hardy is trying to make a modern-day Hammer gothic horror, complete with fog machines, burial grounds, and a garden of ominously staked holy crosses, but his flourishes don’t transform the film into what he wants it to be and they ultimately feel like noncommittal adlibs made against an already predetermined I.P.-protective franchise film. The result is a mind-numbing mess of a film that feels disjointed in precisely every part where it hurts.
Both Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga are great portraying Father Burke and Sister Irene, respectively, despite their thin characterizations. The latter is a novitiate who has yet to take her vows, and the former is an exorcist-cum-”miracle investigator” carrying a hefty weight of trauma after incidentally killing a young boy in an exorcism. Together they’re enlisted by the Vatican to investigate a mysterious suicide at a secluded abbey in 1950’s Romania—a setting that in and of itself lends the film a thickly unnerving atmosphere—and there waddle through foggy hallways and endure jump scare after jump scare…after jump scare. The Vatican might as well have taken them to the local amusement park funhouse.
That leaves us with a film that startles rather than frightens—though I’d be remiss in not noting a truly freaky scene in which a character gets buried alive. Jonas Bloquet’s Frenchie, a drifter who gets a kick out of saying he’s only half-French, brings the film a certain kind of electricity. However, he’s quickly relegated as mere comic relief and dealt with in a way that makes him less of a character and more of a plot device to bridge the disparate films in the “Conjuring” universe. As I leave the theaters, I can’t say I look forward to the next “Conjuring” films with as strong a conviction as I’ve had in anticipation for “The Nun”. If anything, at the end of the film, Valak’s person in the ranks of horror movie icons is the one that’s ultimately defiled.
Film franchises, man. They can dim stars as quickly as they make them. C’est la vie, is it?
2018 / Drama, Horror, Thriller / US
Direction: Corin Hardy
Screenplay: Gary Dauberman
Cast: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons
“A priest with a haunted past and a novice on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate the death of a young nun in Romania and confront a malevolent force in the form of a demonic nun.”