Mary points the way.
There’s a scene in Corin Hardy‘s The Nun where a young postulant receives her vows inside an unholy abbey while the ashes of a dead sister smoke in the background and an unlikely alley loads a shotgun in the fore. It’s the type of moment that should conjure laughs via its absurd juxtaposition and yet anyone who follows The Conjuring franchise knows the inherent severity of its subject matter renders such comically ripe material unintentionally hilarious instead. That’s why so many of these movies find an immense drop-off in quality as compared to James Wan‘s two Warren family-centric chapters. Whereas he handles the tonal blur that arrives from fear-induced laughter, the others struggle to follow suit. Where he embraces the humor, they don’t seem to realize any exists.
I blame the directors considering Wan and writer Gary Dauberman have been involved on a story level for all but one. That could mean the latter is wearing himself thin by going back to the well too often with David F. Sandberg simply getting lucky, but it’s more likely a casualty of the revolving door at the top. It’s a shame because there are some great visual sequences in each installment regardless of the runtime’s quality surrounding them. Nobody should be surprised, however, when they step back and realize Wan’s pair excels because they’re about the two people fighting the demons rather than the demons themselves. Once you remove that through-line and focus on the monsters you know will be defeated by the end, you’re merely spinning wheels.
Let’s face it: a random priest (Demián Bichir‘s Father Burke) and random nun-in-waiting (Taissa Farmiga‘s Sister Irene, a character thus far not canonically related to the actor’s older sibling Vera Farmiga‘s Lorrain Warren) aren’t going to cut it. This is mainly a result of our needing to get to know each on an individual level as well as a communal one on top of the evil origin story of the titular spirit. So the notion that he’s haunted by the ghost of a boy who died during an exorcism he performed years ago and she by the possibility her childhood visions were a trick of Satan rather than gift from God becomes difficult to accept on a personal level beyond how those backstories influence what’s happening right now.
The plot thus becomes paramount to the characters and everything occurring to them a means to an end. How will the boy affect Father Burke’s reactions in the field? How will Sister Irene utilize her visions (and the not so cryptic message in quotes above) to save her life and that of those fighting alongside her? We should be asking how these two have been brought to Romania because of those things instead of how those things will help them now that they’re already here. Convenience only works if it is driven by fate, but the events here are a result of coincidence. The film can’t help but feel as though it was written backwards so Burke and Irene’s backstories could be catered after the fact.
This reality is made worse by a try-hard epilogue re-tying The Nun to The Conjuring 2 (the demon Valak should have been enough) and The Conjuring for no other reason than an unearned “A-ha!” So even if you did find yourself caring for Burke, Irene, and their not-local local Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), this desire to go overboard and be cute has a good chance of ruining things. I personally found myself wondering in the aftermath whether the Vatican pulling strings (with an outside-of-the-box Bishop casting of Michael Smiley) will eventually play a bigger role in the series because their intuition is too good not to think their mission might actually be facilitating demonic release. That’s more interesting then a lucky guess predicated on little evidence beyond divine intervention.
The church did turn a Romanian Satanist’s castle into an abbey after trapping Valak with a drop of Jesus Christ’s blood before a World War II bomb shifted the earth and opened a gate to Hell. Now the nuns within must trap the spirit again, their faith and prayers proving no match against it with one sister’s suicide beckoning the arrival of Burke and Irene from their far-flung positions on the map. As the nearby town feels the effects of evil trickling outside the crucifix-strewn border around the abbey, it’s now in these two strangers’ hands to combat the nightmarish sights piped into their brains and ensure the site becomes a holy sanctuary once more. Luckily they always learn how to save each other seconds before needing to do so.
It’s this series of eye-rolling contrivances that’s impossible to forgive. Everything ends up becoming mechanical in nature rather than a smooth progression of cause and effect born from within. The strings are forever visible and no amount of stunning production design or visual effects can mask this truth. Whether I jumped a couple times or really enjoyed the snakes and demons alongside faceless nuns in habits, any momentary success is pushed aside for two or three more ham-fisted instances of single-locale laziness that would only work if God arrived at the end to admit His steering the ship. Otherwise it’s merely Hardy and Dauberman at the wheel with each turn of the rudder forcing us to jolt awake just in time to see them pointedly wink.
 TAISSA FARMIGA as Sister Irene in New Line Cinema’s horror film “THE NUN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.
 (L-R) BONNIE AARONS as The Nun and DEMIAN BICHIR as Father Burke in New Line Cinema’s horror film “THE NUN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. (Photo Credit: COS AELENEI)
 BONNIE AARONS as The Nun in New Line Cinema’s horror film “THE NUN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.