Spooky Nun II Breathes Undead Life into the Conjuring Universe
After her epic battle with the bloodthirsty demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons), the tenderhearted Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) has retreated to a secluded abbey to mentor young nuns, like the headstrong Sister Debra (Storm Reid). But when Rome calls for help, the devout, psychically gifted nun must once again gird herself to confront satanic evil face-to-face. It appears that Valak has returned, and Irene is the only one the Catholic Church feels is capable of returning this demon to the fiery pits of Hell from which it came.
Much like its 2018 predecessor, The Nun II plays out like an old-school horror effort from the 1960s, only this time a little less creatively imaginative and tonally unhinged. But Conjuring universe veteran Michael Chaves (he also helmed The Curse of La Llorona and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) brings a more formalist approach to the proceedings that’s moderately appealing. In his best directorial outing to date, the filmmaker stages a handful of highly effective scare sequences that do get the job done.
Written by Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and Akela Cooper (M3GAN) from an original story conceived by Cooper, the sequel is basically split into two halves. The first involves Irene and Debra investigating a series of brutal deaths that appear to be the result of Valak’s supernatural machinations. The second involves handyman Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), who helped defeat the demon the last time around and is now working at St. Mary’s Boarding School for Girls, located in a former monastery.
Chaves does a decent job of balancing these dueling plots, and it’s always a given that Irene and Maurice will reunite near the end to engage Valak in battle for a second time. The kicker is that one of the pair may not be able to fight the good fight this time around, as they may be an unwitting vessel for the demon.
As for the demon, it’s as playfully nasty as ever, toying with its various victims before dispatching them in a variety of gruesome ways as it searches for an ancient religious artifact that could give it untold power in the human realm.
I admit I missed the anarchic, gothic lunacy the filmmaker Corin Hardy and writers Gary Dauberman and James Wan brought to the previous film. Hardy knew he was making high-intensity horror schlock in the vein of classic Hammer yarns like Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb or The Plague of the Zombies. It was an over-the-top hoot, but one that still had a plethora of effective moments and was anchored on a wonderful lead performance from Farmiga.
As both his prior entries in the Conjuring universe have shown, Chaves does not have Hardy’s imaginatively creative skill or the willingness to embrace absurdity in an effort to do something unexpected with it. However, he does have workmanlike chops and knows how to set a sinister mood. Chaves manufactures a chilling atmosphere of dread that got under my skin, and unlike either of his other films, this one manages to have an emotional center I felt was worth engaging with.
It helps considerably that the technical facets are top-notch. Production designer Stéphane Cressend (At Eternity’s Gate), art director Alexis McKenzie-Main Mougin (Oxygen), and set decorator Emmanuel Delis (Tenet) create a tactile, suitably lived-in world for the characters to seamlessly inhabit. Thanks to cinematographer Tristan Nyby (The Dark and the Wicked), this may be the most impressively shot entry in this spooky series in quite some time, at least since 2017’s Annabelle: Creation, probably since 2016’s The Conjuring 2.
I was also really impressed with youngster Katelyn Rose Downey. She stole more than her fair share of scenes in the wonderful 2022 actioner The Princess (the Hulu release ruthlessly “disappeared” by Disney earlier this year into the same tax write-off vault Warner Bros. deposited the never-released Batgirl before transitioning HBO Max to Max not so long ago), and she’s even better here. Downey plays Sophie, the quietly inquisitive daughter of the school’s primary educator, Kate (Anna Popplewell), who shares a captivatingly subtle adopted father–daughter relationship with Maurice. She steals virtually every scene she’s in, and Chaves rightfully keeps his film’s focus on her whenever possible.
The final showdown between Irene and Valak is…fine. Nothing surprised me. At the same time, there’s enough energy and excitement that this is never as gigantic a problem as it could have been. Farmiga again showcases an internalized intensity that works rather nicely, and Aarons continues to make Valak an unnerving presence who can send shivers cascading down a viewer’s spine with seemingly little to no effort whatsoever.
Did I still want more from The Nun II? Yes. I think that’s fairly obvious. But I was never bored by this sequel, and even if I always knew how things were going to work themselves out, my eyes nonetheless remained glued to the screen. While it’s doubtful any entry in the Conjuring universe will ever rise to the stratospheric heights of Wan’s initial feature released back in 2013, a decade on, there’s still undead life left in this spooky series of supernatural tales of terror. For fans, that’s sinister news of the macabre worth screaming bloody murder about.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)