The summer of Barbie is officially over. This past weekend, moviegoers flocked to a much different Warner Bros. attraction, which blew through the multiplex like the first chill of autumn. The Nun II isn't a huge smash, at least not yet; its $34.9-million opening is only about half of what its predecessor made out the gate in 2018. All the same, the towering demon in the flowing black habit is clearly still a box-office draw. Audiences, it would seem, haven’t lost their faith in the power of shlock draped in the pious vestments of Catholic dogma.
The Nun II isn’t merely a sequel. It’s a sequel to a spinoff of a sequel, starring a monster first brought in for some strictly supporting haunting around the margins of The Conjuring II. The franchise, which spans decades and includes starring vehicles for multiple malevolent beasties, is now the most profitable series of horror movies ever. Does the average moviegoer know or care that they’re seeing the latest installment in the "Conjuring extended universe" when they buy a ticket for The Nun II or Annabelle 13? Tenuous connection aside, do these movies just reliably appeal to viewers devout, thrill-starved, or both?
The first Nun remains the highest-grossing branch off the Conjuring tree. Maybe it traveled better overseas thanks to its old-world European backdrop. Set in a majestically spired Romanian monastery beset by evil in the early 1950s, that film possessed a certain classically gothic quality—a fog of throwback Hammer Horror atmosphere that blanketed its story of holy men and women flushing out a demon in their midst. You didn’t need to be a true believer to enjoy its creaky haunted-house vibe, nor its ecclesiological spin on buddy-cop convention, sending a veteran priest, Father Burke (Demián Bichir), and a novice nun, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), to investigate the trouble in Transylvania.
The pairing was fun enough, but are we really expected to remember these characters and remain invested in their ongoing holy adventures? Unlike the Annabelle sequels, which keep the evil doll but cycle out her victims, The Nun II all but demands a Wikipedia refresher. Father Burke has wisely died between movies, sparing him (and Bichir) another tussle with the devil’s most creatively spooky minions. That puts Sister Irene in the hot seat with the Vatican, which presses her into hunting down the evil force making its way west across the continent from Romania. Its ride: Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), a.k.a. Frenchie, the hunky villager who audiences may or may not remember from The Nun, now possessed by the demon he previously helped defeat.
There’s a certain youth-pastor energy to the Conjuring movies, which play like Sunday school in a carnival funhouse. The Nun II gives that Christian dorkiness a new shape: It’s more like a a gorier Da Vinci Code, juggling scenes of supernatural mayhem with ones of the intrepid characters (including another nun played by Storm Reid) jet-setting across the most scenic stretches of European cobblestone, consulting with church historians to uncover clues. But the series is still speaking, chiefly, to the inner Catholic child of its audience. Much of The Nun II takes place in the dusty, bug-infested basements and attics of old churches—the kind of spaces an altar boy might fear. And who is the Nun herself but a grotesque perversion of any scary-strict Mother Superior, with fangs and claws instead of a ruler?
The funny thing about the Conjuring movies and their spinoffs is that they sprinkle a little solemn religious dread over what are, essentially, cheap secular thrills. They're like Poltergeist remakes in Exorcist garb. In The Nun II, all that hushed talk of souls in peril is just connective tissue between bump-in-the-dark set pieces. The movie is structured like a Pixies song, all quiet LOUD quiet, with stretches of suspenseful calm interrupted by bursts of gory violence. Director Michael Chaves, who made the previous Conjuring movie, lacks James Wan's gift for this kind of spring-loaded setup and payoff—though he does stage one really good sequence involving a magazine rack in an alley that recalls some of the Pennywise peekaboo terrorism of the recent It movies.
But The Nun II, like its predecessor, doesn't really tap a true nerve of religious terror, that bone-deep Biblical fear of damnation. The threat is too inherently physical; in the last movie, a shotgun proved as handy as a bible. Even poor Frenchie, possessed by the Nun, doesn’t really seem at risk of losing himself to the dark side. He hasn’t been seduced by evil, only marionetted by it; it’s the difference between someone forcing your hand to pull a trigger and someone talking you into it. The latter is much scarier—it’s the danger of true corruption. In the Conjuring universe, the good are always good, evil is always evil, and one usually overcomes the other by the sound and fury of the climax.
Maybe that's one big reason these movies are so popular: They’re basically faith-based funhouse rides that graze their audience's superstitions without really exploiting the deeper fears underlying them. They’re scary, but not too scary, because they make evil look inherently defeatable, with the right attitude or cross or recited passage. And they offset their dread with the comfort of formula—a series of conventions as dependable as scripture, including the introduction of some new creepy threat for the Vatican to vanquish. In this case, it’s an unholy, horned goat that leaps off of stained glass and into our world. He’ll probably get his own spinoff one of these Septembers.
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