[Editor's Note: This article was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being discussed here wouldn't exist.]
Michael Chaves’ The Nun II is regrettably a dull by-the-books Conjurverse entry. Corin Hardy proved incoming directors could shoot a Conjurverse movie without trying to imitate James Wan — 2018’s The Nun is a breath of fresh Euro-Hammer air. The Nun II falls right back into formation with Chaves’ other franchise entries (The Curse of La Llorona and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), where the filmmaker plays imitation games instead of finding his unique directorial voice. It’s a sequel that copies previous Conjurverse entries, lacks discipline, and overstays a nearly two-hour welcome like the rough draft of something tighter, trimmed, and better focused.
The Nun II takes place four years after the events of The Nun, at a Catholic boarding school in 1950s France. Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) is heralded as a demon hunter by her peers of the cloth. Maurice, aka “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), lays low as a groundskeeper at the all-girls boarding school. Everyone hopes that beady-eyed Valak (Bonnie Aarons) has been defeated, but that’s not how sequels work. Sister Irene is summoned back into action when a string of murders against religious figureheads points to Valak’s handy work, forced to save colleagues and students from one of the Conjurverse’s most prominent supernatural villains.
Chaves immediately sets his Nunniness apart by ditching the prior’s darkened Transylvanian horror vibes in favor of a yellow light filter that oddly brightens the overall vibe. There’s a drop in atmosphere that shoots The Nun II like a French religious drama, with rigid camera movements that feel mechanical — aside from chaotic jostling at pinnacles of excitement. Cinematographer Tristan Nyby obsesses over tremendous production design that accentuates stony Renaissance architecture styles of decaying Catholic school grounds, but doesn’t show the same attention to Valak’s attacks. Nyby attempts to replicate the brutal aggression on screen by translating heretic hysteria into jerky camera motions — like you’re the one being shaken or beaten — yet in doing so, coupled with choppy editing cuts, hides the thrills on screen (or covers them with blood squirting onto the lens). It’s the horror equivalent of an action scene that blurs choreography in a tornado of quick-cut camera angles, which weakens what should be some of the film’s hardest-hitting frights.
There’s no doubt that Bonnie Aarons is worth every cent she’s owed as the hyper-unsettling Valak, aka “The Nun,” but Chaves’ command of scares only benefits one mode: fast jumps. That’s fine and dandy as a horror accent — jump scares are a cornerstone of the genre — but the problem becomes how that’s all the film can accomplish. Wan’s ability to use Valak for leery, lingering haunts that stare with dead eyes is lost on Chaves, who struggles to sustain suspense that leans into long-form scare formulas. He’s capable of getting a rise out of viewers with a funhouse approach to horror as Valak continually lunges toward the screen, but these repetitive quick-jab jolts lose their impact without any combo-finishing haymaker. Not to mention how digital animation fails Valak in a few of these scary bites, especially when a horrendously pixelated Valak head lunges from a portrait lookin’ like a trashy SYFY-grade shark.
Then again, the return of Taissa Farmiga and Jonas Bloquet leads to two more quality performances as their characters deal with unfortunate fallout after Frenchie rescues Sister Irene at the end of The Nun. Farmiga is aces as a divine protector who uncovers the origins of not only Valak’s theological backstory with the widest of eyes, but her own familial secrets — Bloquet is possibly better as a man tethered to Valak whose contorted motions are doubly disturbing thanks to fantastic bone-cracking sound design. Adding Storm Reid as Sister Irene’s sidekick Sister Debra allows for a cheeky buddy-cop relationship that keeps some zanier Conjurverse humor alive, which is needed comedic relief. Performances are never an issue of The Nun II, including veteran scare actress Aarons and an innocent school teacher played sweetly by Anna Popplewell. Everyone is authentically terrified, fighting to hold our engagement as technical merits wane.
Inattentive compositional oversight makes The Nun II harder to appreciate despite memorable wine-cellar set pieces and a soon-to-be fan-favorite creature I shan’t spoil. It starts with a story by Akela Cooper that’s co-written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, which takes entirely too long in the first act to tell us what we already know. Long durations of The Nun II feel geographically lost, cutting between nondescript European landscapes without differentiations in visual storytelling. Lax structuring bounces between romantic seriousness and demonic possessions with a jarring contrast, as the film fails to blend themes and arcs into a cohesive product. With three contributing writers, The Nun II can sometimes read like individual storytellers are pulling the script in different directions — tearing continuity apart instead of meeting their ideas in the middle.
The Nun II is hardly more of the same, but I don’t think that’s a godsend. Chaves is a dependable enough director who can get from Possession A to Exorcism B, but when The Nun II is at its best, it’s still a reminder of better (or sometimes worse) Conjurverse movies. My favorite scene of The Nun II is eerily familiar to an Annabelle escape sequence, which spotlights my complaints about the film sparking no individuality. It’s at times an audacious Catholicism adventurer that drowns in rich lore, and at others, a dry procedural that’s thinner than and as flavorless as a communion wafer. There’s such promise in the film’s most brutal glimpses, like when floating padres are roasted in flames, but period-musty airlessness between keynote events can’t sustain its daunting duration. The Nun II is a “Horror 101” flick with an identity crisis, lacking in its convictions and reliant on a finale where Valakian terrors can’t shoulder all the weight.
Movie Score: 2.5/5