Screenwriter Akela Cooper has established a niche brand for herself: the “I promise you it gets really good” horror film. It’s how people typically describe her breakout movie, James Wan’s Malignant. The 2021 film is a little dull at first – a lot of Annabelle Wallis clutching her head and vowing to herself that she isn’t crazy – but it delivers the most chaotic twist of the decade at its midpoint, and, finally, ties up the whole affair in a blood-splattered bow.
Her follow-up, January’s M3GAN, played to type, rewarding patient viewers with a murderous doll who performs TikTok choreography in between stabbings. And now, with The Nun II, the latest in The Conjuring franchise, we get more of the same… to slightly diminished returns. If you can stomach roughly an hour of a scary nun with a subpar skincare routine popping her head out of doorways and chasing French people down corridors, there’s a gleefully demented finale waiting for you at its end – a must-see for fans of possessed livestock and the Catholic sacraments.
The sequel takes place in 1956, four years after the first Nun film that almost no one remembers. Helpfully, a group of chatty nuns recap what happened: the demon Valak, a bother to The Conjuring’s paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) across multiple instalments, first emerged out of a Romanian nunnery, disguised as its imperious Abbess. It was defeated, finally, by the young Sister Irene (Farmiga’s sister, Taissa) and a local farmer Maurice (Jonas Bloquet).
Only – surprise, surprise – Valak’s back in the habit. And, this time, the demon’s taking a sojourn to the south of France and the school where Maurice now works. A twist in the tale isn’t as shocking as The Nun II seems to think it is, and when Irene turns up alongside her new aide, Storm Reid’s Sister Debra, it takes an excruciatingly long time for them to figure out what’s going on. And, for some reason, it involves a surprising amount of sleuthing in the Catholic archives and what can only be described as a sacred laser pointer.
There are a handful of bloody and well-constructed scares early on in the film, which is directed by The Curse of La Llorona and The Conjuring 3’s Michael Chaves. One, unexpectedly, involves a newsstand. And Farmiga’s years on American Horror Story have solidified her scream queen status so effectively that her wide-eyed look of abject fear now seems like second nature.
But The Nun II, unlike Malignant or M3GAN, is unfortunately tethered to seven previous films of demonic activity, and suffers for it. There are too many established rules to follow. You can almost feel the film squirming around in those restraints, trying its best to claw at something new without violating any preexisting evil nun lore. It’s unnecessary, and a problem entirely of the franchise’s own making. The Conjuring isn’t a comic book multiverse. No one expects Valak, Annabelle, and La Llorona to team up and take over the world. So why can’t horror simply let Cooper work her delayed gratification magic?
Dir: Michael Chaves. Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Storm Reid, Anna Popplewell. 15, 110 minutes.
‘The Nun II’ is in cinemas from 8 September