THE NUN II Review: The Dark One Returns

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
THE NUN II Review: The Dark One Returns

With a cool $2.1 billion (US) take across a series spanning a decade, eight entries, and a rate of investment that would make any studio envious, the so-called Conjuring Universe shows little, if any, sign of slowing down, let alone a noticeable drop in quality.

From the central series, a loosely connected trilogy, to spinoffs, prequels (and time-bending prequels to the prequels), the Conjuring Universe has something for practically every supernatural horror fan. That the series takes place in the distant, rudimentarily crude, pre-tech past adds both a thick layer of Gothic nostalgia, Roman Catholic (Christian) iconography, along with a paradoxical sense of verisimilitude – the universe initially claimed it was based in the real-world experiences of the starter trilogy’s central duo, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) –  has made its core, cross-demographic audience incredibly loyal to the Conjuring brand.

The Nun II opens roughly four years after the ending of its predecessor in France circa 1956. Father Burke (Demián Bichir) has moved on in more ways than one. His success in defeating the “demon nun,” Valak, along with the help of a novitiate nun, Sister Irene Palmer (Taissa Farmiga),  has led to a promotion for the priest (bishop) and a less-than-visible position for his companion nun in an out-of-the way French abbey.

For Sister Irene, her face-to-face with Valak has left here with an undiagnosed case of PTSD, less than eager to turn her onetime demon-hunting experience into a professional career, but sequel rules being what they are, it’s only a matter of time before an unwanted Vatican representative makes an appearance, requesting Sister Irene’s expertise in once again battling a re-released Valak.

With Father Burke permanently offscreen, Sister Irene moves into the position of wise mentor while another, semi-agnostic novitiate nun, Sister Debra (Storm Reid), steps into her role. Where Sister Irene retains zero doubt about the existence of (supernatural) evil in the world due to her firsthand experience with Valak, Sister Debra yearns for a miracle, a manifestation not just of the supernatural, but of God’s power on Earth.

It doesn’t count as a spoiler to suggest Sister Debra’s faith will be tested, as will her spiritual strength when she enters the life-or-death fray on the side of Good — as uncritically defined by Roman Catholicism — versus Evil or at least in this case, a supposed fallen angel turned cosplaying demon nun.

In a slow-building, parallel storyline, The Nun II also pits Valak against the inhabitants of a run-down, dilapidated all-girls boarding school, including Sister Irene’s onetime ally, Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), an itinerant handyman who seems to appear wherever Valak does; Kate (Anna Popplewell), a schoolteacher at the boarding school; and Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey), Kate’s tween daughter. While Valak chills in the background, Sophie faces not unfamiliar slings and arrows, not to mention pranks and bullying behavior, from other girls at the school. It’s almost enough for Sophie, whose kindness, generosity, and compassion are never in doubt, to find herself on the spiritual front lines against Valak and everything Valak represents.

That, however, would lead to an entirely different film than the one competently directed by Michael Cheaves (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, The Curse of La Llorona) from an uneven screenplay credited to Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing, and Akela Cooper (M3ghan, Malignant). The Nun II interweaves Sisters Irene and Debra’s search for clues as to Valak’s whereabouts and the newfound object (i.e., MacGuffin) of Valak’s unnatural desire with the slowly — unfortunate emphasis on the word “slowly” — unfolding events at the boarding school before eventually, not to mention mercifully, merging the two storylines and letting Valak do what onetime background extra Valak does best: Terrify small children and like-minded adults with one of the most unnerving images ever put on film (i.e., a white-faced, red-eyed, perpetually grinning nun).

It’s the stuff nightmare were and continue to be made of, though as with any potent, startlingly subversive image, repetition leads to familiarity and familiarity leads to boredom. Recognizing as much, Cheaves and company kept Valak mostly offscreen early on, leaving the demon nun’s extended, havoc-making return for the last 30-40 minutes. It’s a smart ploy that ends up rewarding patient moviegoers, but it also means that the first hour can feel like an unnecessary, time-wasting, wheel-spinning drag.

As with the previous entries in the Conjuring Universe, The Nun II takes itself seriously, sometimes too seriously. The cast, often more talented and skilled than the requirements of the screenplay require, deliver uniformly strong, committed performances, and the periodic set pieces, steeped, as before, in all-enveloping darkness, exude neo-Gothic atmosphere and a suitably dire, downbeat mood to match the relatively high stakes (not life-or-death as much as Heaven Above or Hell on Earth).

The Nun II opens Friday, September 8, 2023, exclusively in movie theaters, via Warner Bros

The Nun II

  • Michael Chaves
  • Ian Goldberg
  • Richard Naing
  • Akela Cooper
  • Taissa Farmiga
  • Anna Popplewell
  • Bonnie Aarons
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Akela CooperAnna PopplewellBonnie AaronsIan GoldbergJames WanJonas BloquetKatelyn Rose DowneyMichael ChavesRichard NaingStorm ReidTaissa FarmigaThe Nun IIHorrorMysteryThriller

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