September 16, 2023

Nostalgia Crossing and Horror Cinematic Universes: Revisiting My Unabashed Love of “The Nun”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that movies we watch as children define us and stick with us in ways that are impossible to replicate. There are others that I wish I had seen earlier, but in the end, it’s the childhood favorites that remain among my favorites to this day, oftentimes due to the nostalgia factor…more on that in a moment.

For what felt like years, I bugged my parents for years about letting me watch R-rated movies, until I had to take my fate into my own hands and find my own way to see what I wanted to see. When I hit high school, I was finally allowed to go to the theater alone and watch whatever I wanted, and I took full advantage of that. One of those films that I saw early on in high school was The Nun.

Despite my best efforts, nobody wanted to see it with me, and I don’t blame them. It was a horror movie, for starters, and connected to a cinematic universe that not many people my age (and certainly not my friends) had any interest in seeing. So I sat in an empty theater on September 7, 2018 — I still have the movie ticket — and found myself cowering behind my own hands as I sat through 97 minutes of gothic terror. And I loved every second of it.

Directed by Corin Hardy, who hasn’t directed much aside from a 2015 English horror film called The Hallow, The Nun is one of many prequels and spin-offs in the horror series that began with 2013’s The Conjuring, which kicked off a renaissance of “haunting” movies and put paranormal horror back on the mainstream map. After the titular demonic nun’s debut in The Conjuring 2 and an offhand reference in Annabelle: Creation, the stage was set to bring the series back further than it had ever been before, timeline-wise: 1952, in rural Romania, a stellar backdrop for a story like this.

Demián Bichir (who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in A Better Life) plays Father Burke, a paranormal expert summoned by the Vatican to investigate what appears to be a nun’s suicide at Saint Cartha’s monastery in Romania. He brings along the novice Sister Irene (played by Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Conjuring star Vera Farmiga) and they are shown to the monastery by local villager Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who initially discovered the nun’s body. Not only was The Nun filmed on location, but it’s scary enough without being overwhelming, displays effective tension building, and has minimal character who all have a specific part to play that doesn’t interfere with the story that’s being told. It’s an excellent gateway drug for budding horror fans.

There are plenty of movies I feel nostalgic about, for any number of reasons, but these are mostly those childhood favorites.
The Nun caught me at an interesting time in my life; horror movies were new and exciting to me, and I could finally watch whatever I wanted with no filters in sight; plus, there was an undeniable allure to certain movies that I knew objectively weren’t the greatest, but I just had so much fun with them that I couldn’t help but love them. That was exactly the case for The Nun.

I did my homework before my first watch; I had seen all of the Conjuring movies released up to that point (as of this writing, I have seen all but one loosely-related spinoff), and I became infatuated with its world building — my favorite story device — and connectivity. Up until then, my exposure to cinematic universes was mainly limited to Marvel, and a similar setup in the horror genre was a dream come true for a fledgeling horror fan like myself. But as a storyteller, the idea of this universe offered essentially limitless potential, and I was excited to see what came next, no matter the quality of the film overall.

So I both do and do not have nostalgia for The Nun. I have a fondness for it that helps me rewatch it with rose-colored glasses, but on the other hand, my love is not so great that I can’t objectively recognize what other people don’t like about it. Of course there are problems with The Nun — in fact, problems that are too much for nearly all of my friends who have seen, and hated, this movie — but I’m choosing to overlook those issues in favor of what I love about it. Maybe that’s the Lenient Critic in me, or maybe I’m just too nice. It could be both.

One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen is that it’s just plain boring, and while I can see why some might think that, I choose to view it as atmospheric and methodical — it’s clearly a movie that takes its time…but it runs at a smooth 97 minutes, and doesn’t have a ton of time to spare for establishing those crucial elements. Still, that’s part of what I love about the Conjuring series in general; the tone-setting and ambience is always spot-on. Plus, unlike its recently-released sequel, The Nun is not just a collection of (admittedly scary) jump scares that take place in various cramped rooms, instead spreading the scares around its singular vast location — a gothic abbey, graveyard and all — even if it’s not as reliant on those surprises. This is a film that takes full advantage of its location and uses it for maximum creepiness…and let’s be honest, the abbey is scary enough on its own. The Nun is merely capitalizing on this.

My other favorite thing about the Conjuring franchise is the lore. Each of the films (aside from perhaps The Curse of La Llorona, which I have not yet seen) has conflicts rooted in Catholic mythology, and even though the specific religious relics that save the day are mostly confined to one film — blood of Christ in one film, eyes of St. Lucy in another — the narrative connectivity between the films themselves is mostly what interests me.

The titular demonic nun, Valak, is not given too much explanation in the original
Nun aside from the fact that it’s “a demon from Hell,” which is just enough implicit exposition to make sense while also not lessening the effectiveness of the story. It’s the perfect balance of simplicity and intrigue, and nearly every entry in the Conjuring series is similar. This is not a review of The Nun II, but this is another area where the sequel is bogged down — it goes a bit too deep on the lore and creates a McGuffin that makes the whole thing feel cheaper and less unique. Demons’ need to terrorize the innocent people of Earth should be enough. And in The Nun, it is.

Valak is the first demon to carry over between films (aside from the Annabelle demon, though that one is less strictly defined), and seeing the earthly origins of this character who first appeared over seven years ago is very exciting to me. It seems like the people behind this universe care about this antagonist specifically, and I hope that the incentive to keep making movies about it — aside from the financial aspect, of course — is narratively driven. Not every universe needs to be Marvel-level, but a relatively small and niche horror franchise actively setting up a major confluence between its properties is something that admittedly makes me giddy.

Where was I going with this? I concocted this article as a way to work through and explain why I love a critically panned horror movie, and I don’t even think my relationship with The Nun is even that notable — we all have that movie that we saw at that point in our lives where we can see objectively why it may not be great, or even good, but we love it anyway. I haven’t even thought very much about The Nun in the last five years, but when a sequel comes around, I think it’s never a bad idea to revisit the original. And in this case, I’m so glad I did.

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