Directed by Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), The Nun II follows up the story of Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) from the first film, tasked with again hunting down whatever is left of the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons) who is leaving a trail of brutal murders across Europe.
At this point, the “Conjuring Universe” is running into problems. While the films, no matter the critical reception, make a tremendous amount of money for their smaller budgets (anywhere between $6 to $40 million), they can mostly be considered horror junk food. The first two Conjuring films directed by James Wan are quite good, and David F. Sandberg was able to make a decent Annabelle prequel, but the films appeal quick to those looking for a quick thrill based on simple ideas of a possessed doll or an evil nun. There is now a rather easily-identified formula to the set-pieces of each film that, despite some occasional visual creativity, mean that each one is predictable to a fault.
The Nun II is just the same and represents a fundamental disappointment with these movies now. The plot is bare-bones, the main character from the first movie is off again to hunt down the same demon who’s possessing someone she used to know and it’s up to Taissa Farmiga and Storm Reid’s Sister Debra to find a new special holy McGuffin to stop the demon. It is rote, unsurprising, and every single moment of horror feels forced in rather than built up by a pervading atmosphere or clever direction.
What James Wan started with these movies was a specific type of energy, harkening back to 70s haunted house movies but with a higher-octane spin that meant that climaxes would involve impressive stunts and extreme content that was also carefully ratcheted by the rest of the movie. Each subsequent spin-off and sequel has been varying levels of trying to recapture this energy to diminishing effect. Now, once you enter these movies, you can expect a cold-open with some type of death or possession to kick things off, continuous dragged-out scenes of characters foreshadowing cliché motivations, and then scene-after-scene of someone walking down a spooky hallway or catacomb with poor lighting, hear something spooky, look closely at another thing that might turn out to be scary, the sharp violin music gets louder and louder, until it all drops dead silent, you think all is well, and then BANG BIG SCARY THING SCREAMS AT THE CAMERA. It is all jump scare nonsense that we were slowly erasing from mainstream horror, but the Conjuring universe movies seem adamant to keep doing much to our annoyance and confusion.
What drives the best horror fiction (movies, TV, literature etc.) and most of James Wan’s best work in the genre is interesting characters inside a compelling story. It doesn’t take much and a great horror film from this year in the Philippou brothers’ Talk to Me examples that idea brilliantly, where a young girl gets peer-pressured into doing something extreme and it unveils deep-seeded trauma and grief that puts her friends and family in danger. It doesn’t rely on special objects with dense mythology or a laughable faux-Indiana Jones discovery of a holy weapon against a demon, just simple ideas that are instantly relatable. Lead actresses Farmiga and Reid do their best with the material, but are forced into illogical situations and are playing one-dimensional characters without recognisable motivations beyond the fear of God.
Right now, horror is doing fine. The classic franchises have gone through strange trends of reboot-sequels, a new one coming soon in The Exorcist: Believer, and we are seeing Blumhouse, A24, Neon, and other independent production houses foster new voices for the genre who seek to come up with crazy new creative concepts to drive the always-demanding horror audiences back to theatres. This was the same way for James Wan and Leigh Whannell for Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring, but now the latter’s universe has become far too similar to other long-running horror franchises: confusing, rote, and progressively underwhelming. The Nun II has some notable production design capturing 50s Europe and some decent moments of cinematography, but is just yet another horror movie with the same single-use-only scares that won’t quicken the heartbeat of any committed audience.