"The Nun": Taissa Farmiga and the Art of the Jump Scare
Much like a day-old slice of birthday cake, 2018's cheap thrill The Nun is bland and unsurprising. Kids will like it and adults may enjoy it briefly for it’s predictability, but it’s nothing substantial or new.
The Nun’s production quality is decent for its modest $22 million budget and it is often competently filmed. The main issues lie in the flat writing, awkward pacing, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what inspires true terror in an audience.
It's no secret that The Nun relies heavily on jump scares; this is not a new tactic, and done well, it can be tons of fun. But when the audience spots a jump scare coming from a mile away, it’s just dull. And unfortunately The Nun’s R rating may stop teens from seeing the film, which is a shame because they’re the target audience for this movie. A young person with a limited knowledge of horror tropes is the ideal viewer for this fifth entry in The Conjuring Universe.
The story follows Sister Irene (a wide-eyed Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate nun approached by Father Burke (Demián Bichir), a “miracle hunter” for the Catholic Church. Burke asks Sister Irene to accompany him as he investigates a Romanian abbey where a nun has mysteriously committed suicide. The duo are joined by Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a townsman who leers at Sister Irene and reluctantly escorts them to the abbey. From there, blaring-loud-noise jump scares and attempts at creepy atmosphere abound.
The Nun pitches some interesting if not original ideas, only to immediately resolve them, botching the pacing of the hour and half long film. As an example, Father Burke grumbles to Sister Irene about an exorcism he performed on a young boy named Daniel. As the Troubled Priest with a Dark Past gulps down alcohol, he tells Sister Irene that he had doubts about Daniel being possessed (although from Daniel's snarling, wall-shaking, and howling from Burke’s flashback, it's bewildering why Burke would be uncertain.)
Immediately afterward, Burke is lured out to a graveyard by Daniel and buried alive by the demon spirit! But wait—Burke is then immediately dug up by Sister Irene, because apparently neither care about the consequences of sprinting around in a creepy cemetery alone at night. Daniel is mentioned fleetingly after this, but the plot point is mainly abandoned. With proper pacing, this storyline could have been poignant or suspenseful, but if the character who is buried alive is immediately saved, why should we expect he will be in danger later in the movie?
After all, what could be more terrifying than being buried alive? Not much, it seems.
A basic rule of thumb for the horror genre is that if your characters aren’t scared, your audience probably won’t be scared either. Viewers are either scared for the character (knowing something the character doesn't, such as a scary nun behind her shoulder) or with the character (like knowing the deadly stakes of creeping around a very haunted abbey) and it’s quite hard to feel either type in The Nun. All of the actors try their best with the clunky dialogue they’re given, but they mainly just out blurt exposition to move the plot along, never building dynamic relationships. This matters too—the audience needs to connect with the characters for the life or death stakes feel consequential.
The whole purpose of a good jump scare is to experience that jolt of terror that gets your heart pounding and react to it with screaming, nervous laughter, or mumbling about how it didn’t “get you.” Cheap, predictable jump scares proliferate the film, such as when Frenchie is attacked by a scary-makeup zombie nun leaping onto him out of a tree; of course there is no rhyme or reason for this and it is never addressed again. If your horror movie can make your audience anticipate the scare, it cheapens the effect.
Why should I feel scared for your characters when they’re apparently fearless?
Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga, is the highlight of this spooky turd. Playing Sister Irene, she really commits to the character, appearing solemn, nervous, and occasionally terrified. She doesn't act like she's in danger, continuing to creep around graveyards in the middle of the night, or walking around a dark cathedral shoeless and alone. But she tries hard to make her character interesting; it's difficult not to root for her.
This film could be great fun if you’re in a theater with a bunch of people who are easily startled by the pan-away/pan-back/jump scare! type horror. These scares are predictable and silly, leaving nothing to the imagination. Horror of the unexplained can be incredibly terrifying (Blair Witch Project, anyone?) but with goofy overly-made-up “scary” nuns popping up at regular intervals, the spook factor just doesn’t cut it.
To belabor the cake metaphor just a moment longer, in the same way eating a slice of birthday cake all alone is no fun, same goes for this movie. If you choose to the watch The Nun, watch with some friends after having a few beers, or watch it with the 13 or older youngsters in your life who will most likely love the easy-to-digest spookage that accompanies this film.