NOC Review: ‘The Nun II’ is a Merciful Improvement Over its Predecessor

It’s been 10 years since The Conjuring debuted to huge box office business and terrific reviews. And in that time, a universe has been established of the freakiest demonic presences in modern day cinema. The most terrifying of which was Valak, aka The Nun!

First introduced in The Conjuring 2, Valak has become an iconic horror mascot for The Conjuring Universe, alongside Annabelle, with the first Nun movie becoming the most financially successful installment in the franchise. Unfortunately, it also took the biggest critical beating with a pitiful 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. With scores like that, thankfully, you can only go up! And The Nun II thankfully is better.

The Conjuring Universe has seen its shares of ups and downs. The first two Conjuring movies and second Annabelle films have been relatively good. The first Annabelle and Nun movies were not. The third Conjuring and Annabelle movies were mid. And now, The Nun II falls somewhere in between the good and mid categories. It’s a lot of fun, if not slightly forgettable.

The film takes place four years after the primary events of the first movie. When we catch up with Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), she’s living in a convent haunted by memories of her encounter with Valak in the previous movie, suffering in secret. However, after a string of mysterious deaths occurring to clergy members across Europe, making their way towards France, the Vatican recruits her to once again uncover the mystery about why people are dying. The mysterious circumstances lead back to Irene’s old friend Maurice, aka “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), now a groundskeeper in a French boarding school. And with that trail, they uncover a truth far more terrifying than either of them has realized: Valak has taken control of Maurice.

At once, the weirdest and most uninteresting thing about the first Nun was how disconnected we felt from the characters and the situation going on. It was a hodgepodge of jump scares, and predictable tropes that didn’t do much to terrify or engage. But The Nun II feels a lot better because we know Irene and Frenchie. Under the direction of Conjuring 3 and Annabelle 3 helmer Michael Chaves, the movie feels a lot more personal and a bit more emotional. We know these characters, we care about their relationships, and as a result, we are rooting for them. The trauma both have experienced is tragic and understandable, and therefore palpable. And the horror is much more effective as a result, because the stakes (physical and emotional) are well defined.

Stakes are what separate the first film from this second movie. There’s not much we care about with the first installment in The Nun franchise. But we can understand based on what we’ve seen of that film why Irene and Frenchie are the way they are in this one. Like a good sequel, The Nun II builds on those characters emotionally, but also elevates them in ways that work for the characters. For instance, we know Sister Irene got visions in the first movie. There’s no context for it at all in that film. But we finally get answers about it in this one. And that’s good. Good sequels build on the mythology established in their predecessors rather than rehashing them or ignoring them. And The Nun II does this for Frenchie and Irene. Overall the story is just a lot stronger and that’s what matters most. And that’s thanks to writers Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing, and of course, modern-day horror master Akela Cooper (M3GAN and Malignant)

Additionally credit where credit is due The Nun franchise has been a great platform for Farmiga to really showcase her acting chops. And while he was shortchanged in the first movie, Bloquet steps it up significantly in this installment. His performance as Frenchie in this chapter is tragic, sympathetic, and also terrifying. While Farmiga is powerful, stronger, and more badass this time around. She’s torn between saving the world and saving one of her few remaining friends, but as a soldier through and through, Irene (and Farmiga’s performance overall).

The scares in this film are effective. They do have their predictable moments, but there’s a lot of moments where the movie could go for the jump scare, but instead just reveals a scare straightforward and lets the imagery and situation elevate the fear. And that’s a lot more preferred than the cheapness of the predictable “tense music dies down, someone looks somewhere and sees nothing, turns and bam! Loud noises.” It’s definitely a preference of mine, and one that I have because I’ve become desensitized to jump scares at this point. But it’s possible many may not find it as scary, if they want the cheap thrills of the first film. There’s a particularly innovative and effective sequence involving a magazine stand that really showcases that Chaves isn’t going for status quo here. And I appreciated it.

Surprisingly, the cinematography in this film is actually really quite good. In fact a lot better than cash grab horror movie would need to be. So props to director of photography Tristan Nyby. There are euphoric, yet horrific vision sequences, and more dark silhouettes against ominously brightly lit backgrounds than the Silhouette Studio at Disneyland. But all of it gives the film a more elevated feel than your average “Boogeyman” movie. And that’s quite lovely.

However if there’s one thing about this movie that feels like a ridiculous waste, it’s how it treats some members of its supporting cast. Irene and Frenchie are great. And Frenchie’s touching relationship with a young girl named Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey) serves as a nice heart for this film. But I found myself questioning what seasoned actors like Storm Reid and Anna Popplewell were even doing in this movie. Reid is such a talented actress, and she plays Sister Debra in this movie. And the only thing I can tell you about this character is she travels with Irene. She literally does nothing in this movie. Popplewell’s character at least has some semblance of a relationship, playing a teacher at the boarding school who (randomly in the movie) is revealed to be both the mother of Sophie and a lover’s of Frenchie’s. But there’s really no point to having her in the movie that isn’t already redundantly filled by Sophie’s character anyway.

The other, more important issue with the movie is that, while it is a lot of fun, it’s also a bit forgettable. I didn’t really think much about The Nun II much after seeing it. The best types of horror movies leave a lingering taste in your mouth to take home with you as nightmare fuel to keep you awake for nights. And The Nun II doesn’t really do that, despite having well shot and well executed scares. It does continue the mythos of the Conjuring franchise in a great way, and it’s way better than garbage like The Boogeyman. But just go in expecting a forgettable, fun time.

That being said, fun is a key word. And that’s the most important thing about any horror movie; particularly a Conjuring movie. The Nun II is also, in general, a big improvement over the first film, with better executed scares and a much more solid story. It does fall shy of reaching the heights of the first Conuring movie, and Annabelle: Creation, but it’s about on par with The Conjuring 2 in terms of how high it ranks within the franchise. A pretty good installment, even if it’s got some issues and isn’t the most memorable. Get ready to have some fun with The Nun!

Overall Score: B

The Nun II comes out this Friday, September 8.

*This review was written during the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strike. To support the strike, please donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.*

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