Bad Habit: "The Nun" has atmosphere but no memorable scares or reason to exist

The Nun (2018)
96 min., rated R.

The habit-wearing, shape-shifting banshee known as Valak was first introduced as a painting that sprung to life and scared the bejesus out of Lorraine Warren (Vera Farming) in “The Conjuring 2” and then hinted at in a photograph, as well as a post-credits stinger, in “Annabelle: Creation.” As the next installment in “The Conjuring Universe,” “The Nun” attempts to retrofit itself into the series by circling back to the beginning in 1952 and devote an entire spin-off to a ghoul that fueled more nightmares as a painting or a creepy figure at the end of a hall. Director Corin Hardy (2015’s “The Hallow”) has chops for setting atmosphere and shrouding everything in shadows, and writer Gary Dauberman (2017’s “It”) knows how to focus on character, but what they don't have here what the previous films had were well-drawn characters, memorable scares, and an involving narrative. Alas, “The Nun” is like the cinematic equivalent of a fidget spinner, holding one’s attention until it keeps spinning its wheels and fails to go to any place of actual consequence.

After Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope) is found with a noose around her neck outside the Abbey of St. Carta in Romania, miracle-hunting Catholic priest Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is called upon by the Vatican to investigate the alleged suicide. Accompanying him on his journey are London-based novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who has yet to take her vows, and guide Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a French-Canadian villager who was making a delivery when he discovered the nun’s body. When they arrive in Romania, nothing about the grounds of the convent seem holy. Frenchie encounters something in the nearby graveyard, Sister Irene keeps seeing a ghastly nun, known as Valak (Bonnie Aarons), who haunts the abbey, and Father Burke is further plagued by a possessed young boy who died during a failed exorcism. Can these three banish this demonic presence back to Hell?

“The Nun” begins with a gripping prologue, relying more on encroaching doom and shuddersome mood than jumpy frights. Director Corin Hardy does know how to saturate candlelit stone passageways with atmosphere and invoke a spooky vibe with gothic, droning chants. There is a fairly creepy attempt to ape the crafty build-up to the basement mirror and painting scenes in “The Conjuring 2,” as Sister Irene watches the moving silhouette of the nun on the walls make its way behind her. A sequence shot overhead as the white-habited Irene is surrounded by other nuns in their black habits hastily kneeling in prayer is also striking, as is the image of the titular nun emerging from a flooded chamber. With due credit out of the way, the film is ineffectual from a dramatic level and mostly preoccupied with characters, sometimes for no good reason, following robed figures until something pounces out at them in the dark, like an extra in a haunted house walk-through.

Taissa Farmiga (2015’s “The Final Girls”), sister of Vera Farmiga, is well-cast, but the fact that Sister Irene has no relation to Lorraine Warren feels like a missed opportunity, considering Irene is also a seer. All the more disappointing is that both Farmiga and Demián Bichir (2017’s “Alien: Covenant”), as Father Burke, never receive any meaningful layers beyond their thin character sketches, like Irene’s gift of visions not getting the chance to develop and flourish. They become reduced to stiff pawns, wandering around to explore dark spaces with candles and oil lamps and splitting up in the abbey’s catacombs. Jonas Bloquet (2016's "Elle"), however, does bring flirtatious charm and a lively levity to Frenchie. Bonnie Aarons in her pale-faced make-up and yellow contact lenses as Valak is enough to keep one up at night, but for her origin story, nothing more is learned about the unholy demon invading that habit besides some expository hokum that is more goofy and murky than sinister and interesting.

“The darkest chapter,” this is not. 2013’s “The Conjuring” and 2016’s “The Conjuring 2” (and to a certain extent, 2014’s “Annabelle” and 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation”) have specialized in a classy, meticulously crafted realm of R-rated horror that frightens and thrives without favoring gore over tingling, visceral tension. Drenched in mood though it may be, “The Nun” frustratingly takes a step back, settling for empty mediocrity and repeatedly calling attention to how inferior it is to its predecessors in terms of high style, playfully creepy inspiration, and masterstroke for misdirecting the scares. The capper that makes even more of a connection to “The Conjuring” is vaguely clever but feels like a cheat. This fruitless offshoot’s sins far outweigh the workable jolts that it’s enough to already lose interest and faith in this shared cinematic universe. Valak, be gone.