Unexpected blessings abound in The Nun II, an inevitable sequel to The Nun, the 2018 Conjuring-inspired horror film many saw and few loved. Fans watching the original again this week as prep (scary movie devotees do their homework), will note that it had a nifty bit of business involving bells, which signaled a living being inside a buried casket. Otherwise, it was heavy on howling demon CGI effects and a super-dull portal-to-hell backstory.
We might have expected more of the same for the sequel, but instead, incoming director Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona) and a trio of writers new to the series, have fashioned a story that gives the expanded cast (including some gifted child actors) an increasingly amped-up series of run-for-your-life action sequences that prove to be quite diverting.
The Demon Nun (Bonnie Aarons), as we’re meant to call her, does indeed howl, but sparingly, while her history grounded in dime-store Catholicism, is disposed of quickly. The filmmakers are actually jazzed about their living characters, and it’s clear they’re anxious to get to the third-act appearance of a wonderfully ridiculous horned hellhound, whose scene-stealing presence surely wasn’t approved in advance by the Demon Nun. She, of course, was meant to have been banished back to Hell at the end of the first film by a priest (Demián Bichir), a sister named Irene (Taissa Farmiga) whose a psychic nun still in her novitiate, and a handsome, irresistibly sweet caretaker (Jonas Bloquet), working the haunted Romanian abbey, circa 1952.
Four years later, nuns and priests begin to die, gruesomely, including, as The Nun II opens, a priest who burns to death while seeming to float in midair, in a church in western France. The Vatican summons Sister Irene to investigate, a journey she’ll undertake with a younger nun, Sister Debra (Storm Reid). Together, they become a Holmsian pair of sleuths, with Debra, wonderfully played by Reid, bringing a welcome sense of skepticism to the story and a witty hit-the-demon-on-the-head logic to the big moments.
Maurice, meanwhile, is in Provence, working at a Catholic girls’ school housed in a 13th century convent so ragged, rundown and creepy that any parent who sends their child there should be prosecuted for cruelty. Stéphane Cressend’s production design, right down to a bit of plaster that is imprinted, ever so faintly, with the shrieking face of the Demon Nun, is terrific. Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey), the 12-year-old daughter of the teacher (Anna Popplewell) on whom Maurice is smitten, finds him a perfect match for her lonely mother, but she’s noticed that his body sometimes stiffens strangely, and that he can be scarily quick-tempered. At these times, it’s like he’s someone else, and indeed, poor Maurice is possessed by the Demon Nun. (This is not a spoiler).
It takes director Chaves and screenwriter Akeela Cooper (Malignant), as well as the writing team of Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), most of the film before they reunite Sister Irene and Maurice, whose sense of delight in one another, with a tasteful hint of romance, gave the first film a spark missing from the story itself. Their reunion comes at the end of a frightening few days at the girls’ school.
Bullied by three mean girls, Sophie is enticed into a forbidden chapel in which the son of the headmistress (Suzanne Bertish) died years ago. The girls scare Sophie with tales of a devil-haunted stained glass, and later, the headmistress herself is lured there by laughter that sounds a lot like her dead son. All of this is nicely unnerving, and occasionally horrific. Young teens, who are sure to see The Nun II, with or without their parents, are likely to dig the Hogwarts-gone-wrong vibe.
It is unexpected to like The Nun II so much, but in its over-the-top horror and action filled finale there is the sense of a filmmaker looking to shock and surprise, but to do so playfully. The Conjuring universe, as it’s known, which includes the Annabelle haunted doll movies, takes itself very seriously. There’s not much joy in the telling. But The Nun II dares (gasp!) to have some fun.
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