It says a lot about the history of nunsploitation cinema that “The Nun II,” which opens with a scary ghost nun levitating a priest and setting him spectacularly on fire, is one of the more understated entries in the genre.
That’s not to say “The Nun II” is a subtle film, or a thoughtful film, or even a good film. It’s just that when you share space on the video store shelf with Ken Russell’s “The Devils” and Bruno Mattei’s “The Other Hell,” a bunch of cheesy random jump scares wrapped around a tepid storyline just doesn’t stand out much.
Even compared to Corin Hardy’s first “The Nun” movie — itself the fifth entry in the “Conjuring” franchise, with “The Nun II” now the ninth — Michael Chaves’s sequel is a major step down. Hardy’s stylish horror adventure was energetic enough to entertain despite its egregious silliness. In “The Nun “II” so very little happens that the silliness stands alone, soaking up all the attention, ruining all the alleged scares.
Taissa Farmiga is back as Sister Irene, who once saved the world by spitting Jesus Christ’s blood into a ghost nun’s face. The priest who joined her got all the credit and all the rewards. Now Sister Irene lives a quiet life in a convent with her fellow sisters, who tell scary stories about her escapades while they peel potatoes, none the wiser that the hero of their tales is in the room with them and that — since she alone knows all the secrets to the demon realm — Sister Irene is also, technically, “nun the wiser.”
Sister Irene gets called back to action when a series of clergy members are murdered across Europe. The culprit is no mystery: “The Nun II” ended with handyman Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) getting possessed by Valak, a demon who really likes dressing up as a nun. Frenchie has been drifting from city to city, always moving after a clergy person dies in a melodramatic fashion, and somehow never considering for one second that maybe that’s not just a coincidence.
Frenchie now works at a boarding school for young girls, where one of the students, Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey, “The Princess”), is an innocent cherub. All the other girls bully her, but Sophie’s mother, a teacher named Kate (Anna Popplewell, “Reign”), either hasn’t noticed or has decided to do jack squat about it. Sometimes Frenchie goes catatonic for a while, and when that happens people get terrorized by a ghost nun. Sometimes he doesn’t. The movie is equally uninteresting either way.
That’s because “The Nun II” stubbornly refuses to be about anything thematically interesting, so all the dramatic scenes play like filler. Meanwhile, the film’s voluminous jump scares rarely connect to anything. The fright interludes seem designed to work only in the vacuum of a movie trailer, where context means little, but not in the world of the film. In one scene, Sister Irene walks up to a newsstand in the middle of the night and all the magazines magically flip their pages until they form a picture of The Nun. That’s pretty weird, but what’s even weirder and more distracting is that there’s this newsstand that leaves all its magazines out in the middle of the night, unattended, just in case anyone wants to steal them. Or maybe it’s because the newsstand owner really wants them to get rained on.
It might seem like a nitpick but so very little happens in most of “The Nun II” that the audience gets lots and lots and lots of time to think about everything that’s happening, and reach the conclusion that none of it is clever and little of it is frightening. Even the film’s primary plot point, in which Valak is trying to find an ancient Catholic artifact, feels meaningless because nobody ever says why the demon wants it, what it could do with it, or why it’s so very important to keep it away from them. As near as we can tell, all it would actually do is make The Nun taller. Run! Run for your lives!
Or, you know, don’t. It won’t save you. The Nun, like most of the supernatural monsters in “The Conjuring” universe, is so massively overpowered, with almost no weaknesses to speak of, that the only reasonable explanation for why anyone survives the Nun’s wrath is the demon just got lazy or distracted. What’s the point of running and hiding in another room when the Nun can teleport from a boarding school to a newsstand an hour’s drive away? At one point Sister Irene’s apprentice, Sister Debra (Storm Reid, “Missing”), tries to stop a monster by leaping on its back, which… I mean, kudos for trying I guess, but that’s probably not gonna cut it.
The problem with describing a movie like “The Nun II” is that its many inane moments sound entertaining when you list them all on one page, but they’re so spread out through this movie that the entertainment is usually quite scarce. It isn’t until the film’s final act that we get so many ridiculous scenes in a row that it’s actually somewhat enjoyable. And since it culminates in one of the silliest climaxes in recent movie memory, it’s tempting to look back on the rest of the film with rosé-colored glasses. But as Sister Irene would probably tell you, we shouldn’t give in to temptation.
Speaking of Sister Irene, Taissa Farmiga bestows every scene with an incredible melange of pious benevolence and terrible wisdom. Farmiga is the best part of these “Nun” movies, and the filmmakers express their gratitude by kicking the crap out of her. Farmiga gets thrown into glass windows and set on fire and I lost track of how many times she collapses onto stone tile floors. She’s remarkably game to headline this movie, whose only rules seem to be that she must get knocked down, and then get up again, because “The Nun” is never going to keep her down.
If only the same could be said for the rest of us, because “The Nun II” really is a bit of a downer. A few moments of glorious nonsense and a striking lead performance do little to compensate for such a shiftless, pointless, and unremarkable horror movie. Let’s hope future “Conjuring” movies won’t turn this “Nun’s” failings into a habit.
Warner Bros. Pictures’ “The Nun II” opens in theaters on Sept. 8, 2023.