'The Nun' Delivers Rapid-Fire Gothic Horror Scares in the Sam Raimi Mold

The Nun is a different type of throwback. Swapping the 70s setting of The Conjuring movies for 1950s Romania, The Nun evokes an era when gothic horror was the norm, rather than a moribund horror subgenre reserved for passion projects like Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak. Rather than grandiose and ponderous, The Nun is workaday, lunch pail gothic, getting the job done with the energy of a factory floor.

The set-up is straightforward: Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) are sent to investigate a nun's suicide in a Romanian abbey. And while The Nun ties back into both The Conjuring 2—origin of the nun-shaped demon Valak, "the defiler, the profane, the marquis of snakes"—and, surprisingly, the first Conjuring movie, there's little illusion that The Nun is building some larger saga. Even hints pointing toward a wider scope, such as the suspicious priests who send Burke to Romania ("Because we're in the Vatican," one says, as an excuse for his secrecy), amount to little more than gothic seasoning.

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Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene in "The Nun." Warner Bros. Pictures

With the help of their lusty guide Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) (by the way: Congratulations Warner Brothers! You somehow found a way to cast mostly male leads in a movie set at an abbey full of women), Irene and Burke are soon up to their prayer beads in skeletal abbesses, snake-puking boys and iced-over zombie nuns. For you see, the nuns have done a very desperate thing, opening the door marked "God Ends Here" in an attempt to bottle up the evil inside. It didn't work.

There's more to The Nun plot than that, including sacred relics, holy visions, Teutonic Knights and a portal to Hell, but it doesn't matter too much, because The Nun is about piling as many scares as possible into 90 minutes. While not as elegant as the agonizing builds and clever scares of The Conjuring movies, The Nun makes up for it in quantity.

Nearly every scene features Father Burke or Sister Irene confronting mysterious, habit-cloaked entities, wielding crosses splashed with holy water, digging up graves, reading old texts or exploring labyrinthine crypts, the Nun likely to pop out from behind every corner. A significant percentage of the runtime is taken up with a character walking, ever-so-slowly, toward a turned-away nun kneeling on the floor, ready to pounce or reveal a demonic face. This rapid-fire approach to horror keeps The Nun from ever getting close to boring, though it does dull the senses.

There's a pleasant dose of Sam Raimi in The Nun; an Evil Dead-esque sense of gooey, roaring fun, though it's never quite as characterful. The script by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle, It) matches the rapid-fire approach with an understated sense of humor ("I should tell you one more thing further," Frenchie says, when they come across the body of a nun he's moved to the icehouse, "that's not where I left her.") that provides just enough to attach ourselves to the fates of Irene, Frenchie and Burke, if not endear us to them.

This is, in part, because our three investigators are rarely on-screen together, instead chasing their individual encounters with the supernatural. At times, this becomes faintly ridiculous, such as when the three main characters chase the nun to a crypt and then, in the next shot, are inexplicably exploring separate paths. It also doesn't help that every character takes every bit of bait, chasing whatever the Nun tosses out like a dollar on a string.

But gothic horror this entertaining is rare enough that most of my complaints felt beside the point. The Nun is a significant step up from Annabelle, with director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) going for broke and throwing everything possible at the screen.