While still predictable and heavily reliant on the jump-scare, a tense atmosphere and flushed out backstory make “The Nun 2” better than its predecessor.
“The Nun” movies are in a shared universe connected loosely to “The Conjuring” and “Annabelle” films. In the last ten years, nine of these movies have been pumped out — a pace that ensures they’re bound to be somewhat formulaic.
If you haven’t seen the first movie, “The Nun,” don’t worry — there’s an overly precise summary of those events orated early on in the sequel. It goes something like this: there was a mysterious death in a monastery, leading to an investigation. A priest, a nun and a farmer arrived to try and figure out what happened, and were tormented by the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons), who had taken the form of a creepy nun. And the only way to stop the demon was an ancient religious relic.
Rinse and repeat — the plot of “The Nun 2” is pretty much the same, only moved from Saint Cartha’s monastery in Romania to a boarding school in France. The first film’s heroes, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and noble farmer Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), are both back in the mix. But sweet Frenchie, who mostly goes by Maurice now, left Romania possessed by Valak, and he has since been puppeted across Europe killing religious folk.
The priest from the first movie doesn’t return for the sequel. In his place, young Sister Debra (Storm Reid) joins Sister Irene. But after hinting early on that she needs to develop her faith, foreshadowing a big epiphany that’ll save the day, Sister Debra gets lost in the script, a filler character who doesn’t feel integral to the plot.
Where the sequel really differs, and excels, is its deep dive into religious mythology. When Sister Irene visits the Vatican archives, she gets a crash course on the history of the powerful relic that Valak is after: the eyes of St. Lucie, the patron saint of sight. The saint’s lineage has protected the relic from falling into the wrong hands to this point, and we learn that Valak’s murderous trip across Europe wasn’t as random as it seemed — knocking off the family line one-by-one in search of those holy eyeballs.
If the demon gets them, it’ll be bad news for humanity. On the flip side, that same relic is mankind’s only weapon against the demon, so it’s a race to get those eyes first.
I remember the first time I saw the demon nun in “The Conjuring 2,” I was petrified. But I have to say — ol’ Val is starting to lose a step. At a certain point, there’s only so many times the nun can stand ominously at the end of a hall and leap toward the camera before the scare loses some steam. Even those glowing eyes are becoming a weak flex, and I’m bored of the lifting chokehold.
The problem with a lot of horror films is the inconsistency of the demon’s power. You know what I mean: in one scene, a demon, without ever appearing, might make a man rise into the air and burst into flames. The dude has no chance, and that is a frightening and hopeless realization. But in another scene, a child can escape the demon’s grasp by simply kicking away its hand. That wasn’t so hard. So which threat level is it? My fear is wavering.
Yes, the film has its expected jump-scares, but there’s also the frequent sense of impending doom that keeps you clenched on the edge of your seat. And that buildup is what’s most memorable. The magazine stand scene from the previews is a pretty nifty effect, multiple pages flipping to match up and create faces, then expanding to ultimately form the demon nun. That slow escalation is more impactful than the obvious jump-scare that concludes the scene.
There’s a distinct style in the shadow-filled boarding school and its chained-up chapel. Plus, there are plenty of children around, and kids always make horror better. They’re naive, innocent, and often find themselves helpless. And if they become evil, they’re terrifying.
Sure, there are some unanswered questions. How can the relic both empower and destroy the demon? When in the timeline of all of this does a possessed Maurice encounter Ed and Lorraine Warren in “The Conjuring” universe? But there are not too many questions that they take the audience out of the experience.
Horror films are usually more concerned about building atmosphere than they are connecting the dots of their story. “The Nun 2“ is able to do a bit of both.