Michael Chaves’ The Nun II is a bizarrely perfect encapsulation of the ever-present struggle between art and commerce in big-budget studio filmmaking. Because The Nun II is a distinctly commercial product: a sequel to 2018’s The Nun, which is also the ninth installment (or tenth, depending on who you ask and if they decide that Michael Chaves’ own 2019 feature film debut The Curse of La Llorona is or isn’t actually part of the franchise) in the now decade-old The Conjuring mega-franchise, produced and distributed by Warner Bros. with a budget upwards of $40 million.
And yet, The Nun II is simultaneously an undoubted work of outstanding artistry and creative ambition. The production design is lush and reverent, the camerawork from Chaves and cinematographer Tristan Nyby is verbose and carefully crafted, the performers are putting their best foot forward, etc. But for all of the artistry on display, The Nun II’s commercial prospects and grandiose financial backing wind up working against the film itself in perplexing ways. Let’s talk about it.
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT “The Nun II”
5. The Carefully Curated Suspense
The Nun II is a marked step up for Chaves as a crafter of horrific, suspense-fueled setpieces.
Director Michael Chaves has a history working exclusively within this subgenre of supernatural horror (even more specifically, working within the confines of The Conjuring franchise if you’re inclined to count the aforementioned La Llorona), with his prior film being The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. That threequel was much less well-received than James Wan-helmed predecessors, with Chaves’ visual choices being overtly infatuated with the idea of paying homage to classic horror films (The Exorcist, The Shining, etc.) without ever demonstrating even a semblance of understanding when it came to delivering horrific moments of his own.
The opening sequence of The Nun II alone generates more effective suspense in a handful of minutes than Devil Made Me Do It did across its entire runtime. In teaming with cinematographer Tristan Nyby (whose prior credits include Bryan Bertino’s suspense-driven The Dark and the Wicked), Chaves hones in on a craft that is disciplined and pragmatic from the on-set and makes for a much more carefully orchestrated cinematic experience. Several early sequences in the film showcase this in spades, even though all of this care eventually falls by the wayside almost entirely in the latter half of the film.
4. Design Elements
One of the big plusses of having a big-budget major studio footing the bill is that all of the visual elements of The Nun II look and feel pretty great.
The film is set in 1950s-era France and everything about it feels delightfully authentic and fully realized, with production designer Stéphane Cressend (of Dunkirk and The French Dispatch fame) doing terrific work. The same can be said of the titular nun herself, Valak, as portrayed by Bonnie Aarons. Her design is an inherited one whose origin stretches all the way back to The Conjuring 2 in 2016, but there is a great deal to be said about the simplicity and effectiveness of her design.
But speaking of Valak…
3. Weak Spot: The Nun Herself
Bonnie Aarons is as wonderful as she has ever been.
Prior to these films, Aarons was at the heart of one of the single most unsettling moments in cinematic history, as the ‘bum’ in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but The Nun II has precious little interest in giving her anything to do. In fact, it feels as if the vast majority of Aarons’ work was probably filmed entirely over the course of just a few days because Valak is only on-screen for a matter of minutes and does little to interact with her environment in a meaningful way, even in those moments.
She is less a character and more just a cog in the machinery of the narrative, with even the film’s climactic setpiece giving a much bigger spotlight to a different ghostly character (a Goat Man… whose affiliation with Valak is ruthlessly unclear). She gets no dialogue, no motivation beyond a simple fetch-quest that’s so paper thin even the most lackadaisical of viewers will be poking holes through it, and is hardly on-screen, which begs the question of why even bother calling the film The Nun II if it is, in actuality, just more of a generic Conjuring prequel.
2. Weak Spot: Throwing Money at Your Problems
Where the artistic and commercial elements of The Nun II really come to a head, and where all that goodwill from the carefully curated suspense really goes out the window, is in the scares themselves.
In the vernacular of horror filmmaking, suspense is akin to setup, and the scare is akin to a payoff. The suspense is there to make the audience squirm, really milk an emotional reaction out of them, and then the scare is there to punctuate it. And while The Nun II at least starts off with some really well-crafted suspense, even in its opening sequence, the scares are reductive and uninspired. This leaves the preceding suspense feeling lesser than it should, as a setup without a worthwhile payoff.
The root of the issue here is simply that The Nun II opts to throw money at its problems rather than actually coming up with an artistic solution to them. Rather than finding a scare that fits the moment, The Nun II just defaults to garish and frankly laughable jump scares of CGI monstrosities at every turn. In a film that otherwise feels so tactile in its visuals and tone, it’s an incredibly poor choice that sticks out like a sore thumb.
1. Weak Spot: The Script
While Michael Chaves and co. do accomplish some admirable things within the confines of The Nun II, so many of the film’s biggest weaknesses stem from a root problem: the script itself.
While the advertising for the film has (smartly) sold it as a straight-forward story, The Nun II is, in actuality, vastly more complicated than that, and it is to its own detriment.
The story splits itself in twine to tell the tale of a boarding school besieged by a possessed groundskeeper and the story of Sister Irene (the protagonist of the first film), who is essentially playing the role of a nun detective, tracing a trail of destruction left by Valak across France. The two paths inevitably intercede at the climax mark, but spreading the story so thin and populating it with so many characters makes for an entirely unsatisfying result.
Making matters even worse is a sense of restlessness that pervades the film’s pacing, moving the narrative along at a breakneck pace, rushing from one horror setpiece straight into the next, without hardly ever pausing for so much as a moment of character-building or resonance. The result is a film that moves at a ridiculous pace but whose characters remain firmly in stasis for the entirety of its runtime.
It isn’t fair to say that there’s nothing to be enjoyed in The Nun II, but it is fair to say that even its most enjoyable moments are routinely marred by its less enjoyable attributes across the runtime. Should the minds behind The Conjuring franchise ever elect to get Valak back in the habit again, here’s hoping that they can cook up a film worthier of its titular character and performer.