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September 05, 2018 at 07:00 PM EDT
We gave it a B

Thanks to horror movies, certain types of people are universally terrifying. Clowns, for one. Victorian children for another. Any child mournfully singing a nursery rhyme slowly. And now, thanks to the latest entry in the Conjuring universe, nuns. You’ll never be able to watch The Sound of Music the same way again.

Ostensibly, The Nun is a prequel to 2016’s The Conjuring 2, specifically an origin story of one of that movie’s most memorable scares, a demonic nun with deep glowing eyes and a terrifying grin. The movie begins two decades before Ed and Lorraine Warren’s paranormal investigations, in 1952 Romania where a nun is discovered gruesomely hanged outside of a remote castle monastery in an apparent suicide, and the Vatican investigates by sending a priest (Demián Bichir) and a young novice nun, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Conjuring-verse star Vera Farmiga, though no explicit connection is made between the two characters).

Aiding them on their quest into the increasingly macabre is a young French-Canadian (Jonas Bloquet) living inexplicably in Romania, who had originally discovered the first nun’s apparent suicide. Bloquet looks a bit like Brendan Fraser, an effect aided by his wearing suspenders over a white shirt and holding a torch aloft for much of the movie, but he isn’t the only reason The Nun feels a bit like 1999’s The Mummy. When the third act descends into a quest to use the blood of Jesus Christ to seal a portal to hell (yes), it becomes something much closer to Fraser rollicking through Egyptian tombs than whatever Tom Cruise did in 2017.

Unlike the first two Conjuring movies, which exist in ether and anticipation, The Nun is a distinctly tangible movie. That corporeality is best understood during a scene in which a character walks through the woods when—jump scare!—a hanged nun’s dangling legs appear before him. The corpse drops, its face contorts to life into a bloody, fanged grin. The corpse roars like an animal and tries to bite his face off. Scary? Sure. But such a distinctly different scary than the grotesque horror of seeing a barefoot dead body inches from your face that the juxtaposition feels slapdash.

A screenplay by Gary Dauberman (It) jerks awkwardly between terse thriller and campy comedy. While watching The Nun, it’s possible to envision multiple versions of this film—slow-burning gothic thriller; bloody gore-horror; action-comedy—layered atop one another, like transparencies stacked on an overhead projector. Like the demon Valak, we never actually get to see this movie’s true shape, just whatever form it chooses to take on in any given scene.

For those whose top priority is a racing heart-rate, fear not: there are two or three jump scares where your devoted critic feared she broke the hand of the person sitting next to her. The last two thirds of the movie provide a cavalcade of scares, one after another. Nothing stands out as uniquely memorable or iconic (the nun-in-the-mirror bit, scary as it was, was already done in The Conjuring 2). But when it leans into its camp, (I.e. when the French-Canadian “Frenchie” is on screen), The Nun comes closest to its ideal form of go-to midnight-movie, the fun younger cousin of the Conjuring movies with less build-up but more of the money shots you’ll come to a theater to see. B

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