Better than its predecessor in almost every way, “The Nun II” will still have its detractors but undoubtedly does a hell of a lot right.
Famously lauded as the most successful horror franchise of all time, horror master James Wan’s Conjuring Universe plays like a radio-friendly hit list, full of catchy hooks and earworms, one banger after another. Rarely does the maestro or his orchestra of fine filmmaking talent fail to deliver.
2018’s The Nun was the exception to the rule. Directed by Corin Hardy and written by Gary Dauberman (IT 2017, Annabelle: Creation) and James Wan, the film was a box-office smash, but the reception was middling at best. The Nun currently holds a 24% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and an equally dismal 35% audience score.
The truth is, The Nun is far from a bad film. It’s elegantly made, with ample atmosphere and sumptuous visuals. The cast is game, and the film hits all the requisite technical marks. There’s ample skill in front of and behind the camera. Further, the film’s conceit promises a sure-fire hit, especially given how effective the titular antagonist — a demon nun by the name of Valak (played exquisitely by Bonnie Aarons) — was in The Conjuring 2. But sometimes, as we learned with another film in the Universe, Annabelle, less is more.
No doubt, the nasty nun still casts a terrifying shadow, with her malevolent presence, sinister design, and the delicious way Aarons embodies her. But her backstory left a little to be desired, feeling lackluster and uninspired. Ultimately, The Nun seemed to have committed the worst sin of all; it simply failed to make a mark.
Now, director Michael Chaves (La Llorana, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) has been tapped to be the saving grace of the spinoff series — along with rising genre star Akela Cooper (M3GAN, Malignant), who provided the story and script, with help from screenwriting duo Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing. Do they deliver a miracle or a damned disaster?
It’s too early for a Rotten Tomatoes audience score, but early critical reception has been at least somewhat more encouraging. It currently sits at 54%. Though that’s no chorus of angels, it’s a far cry better than the hell fury that rang down upon the original.
If you’ve had a peak at some of the early reviews, you’re likely more than a little confused as to the effectiveness of the sequel, given the wildly polarizing opinions. This review won’t do anything to cut through that clutter, but the spirit compels me to share my thoughts anyway.
For this critic, The Nun II is a hell of a lot more fun than its predecessor.
It takes just minutes to realize the film plans to earn its R-rating and give genre fans exactly what they came for. The Nun II announces itself with gory gusto in a chilling cold opening during which a young boy witnesses the ghastly murder of a priest.
We soon learn that Valak is back and more destructive than ever, tearing a bloody path across Europe and slaughtering holy figures.
For all its faults, The Nun unquestionably benefited from a couple of captivating and empathetic leads, a nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a lovable French-Canadian groundskeeper named Maurice, aka Frenchie (Jonas Blouet).
Both are back to battle the unholy evil, and they both shine even brighter this time around.
News of Valak’s bloody rampage reaches the convent in Italy where Sister Irene has been peacefully living for the last four years since the harrowing events of the first film. Representatives from the Vatican have returned to demand Irene once again try to contain the unstoppable evil. She refuses, given the trauma she endured while barely getting away with her life. But when she realizes she’s the only one with a chance at stopping the carnage — having learned that Father Burke (played by Demián Bichir in The Nun) has died of cholera — she reluctantly agrees to investigate the mysterious, horrific deaths plaguing religious institutions.
Though she plans to go it alone, she’s joined at the last minute by a free-spirited young nun, Sister Debra (Storm Reid).
Forced into the convent by her father after an ugly encounter with racists, Debra struggles to keep her faith and is desperate for proof of real miracles. After learning what Irene did in her battle with Valak, she’s convinced Irene is the key to her enlightenment.
One thing’s for certain: the chemistry between these two women is the key to elevating The Nun II and making it utterly watchable and engaging, even when there are no supernatural shenanigans keeping us on the edge of our seats.
Eventually, the investigation leads the two Nancy Drew nuns to a girls’ boarding school in France where it’s believed a sacred holy relic is buried — a relic Valak may be on the hunt for.
It also happens to be the new workplace of Maurice, who has made quite a cozy life as the school’s custodian, befriending a kindhearted student (Katelyn Rose Downey) and doing his best to charm her beautiful single mother and schoolmarm (Anna Popplewell).
Things are just about perfect, except for one tiny little complication.
As we learned at the end of the last film, Maurice has been unknowingly possessed by Valak, who is now controlling him and using the gentle spirit to help wage the demon’s unholy war.
This puts Irene in the awful position of having to face off against her friend and potentially destroy him to save humanity.
Returning cast members Farmiga and Blouet are as reliably excellent as you’d expect, this time given more meat to chew on and making the most of every minute of it. Farmiga brings vulnerability and tenderness to her role while remaining a convincing pillar of strength and ferocity when facing off against demonic forces. She’s allowed to flex her considerable acting range this time around, giving us agony and ecstasy in all its glory.
Bloquet is perfectly cast and utterly believable as a genuine soul with so much natural charm, sensitivity, and likability that it makes his diabolical bond to hell and his doomed fate all the more torturous to watch, lending the film some much-needed emotional weight. His relationship as friend and protector to the sweet but bullied Sophie (Downey) is so endearing, and his restrained but blossoming flirtation with Sophie’s mom, Kate (Popplewell), will make you ache for a happy ending you’re sure isn’t coming.
The Nun II is a much more expansive film, benefitting greatly from the foundation laid by the first film.
This satisfying sequel effectively introduces several new players who make this a more investing watch. Despite limited backstory, we quickly grow to care about the new additions and appreciate the intelligent way they are used to give more depth to returning characters.
Reid is a standout as Farmiga’s partner-in-crime, bringing warmth, humor, and gumption to the mystery-investigation crux of the film, which, in less capable hands, could feel dull and prodding.
Given that a large number of the cast includes young children, a potentially risky proposition, the performances are universally strong. Downey is especially captivating. She more than holds her own in emotionally riveting scenes beside her talented adult co-stars.
All this works to make the film a compelling character-driven thriller. But that’s not really why you’re here. So, let’s discuss how well the dynamic duo of Chaves and Cooper fare when it comes to delivering the scares.
I’m happy to report that there is much here for horror fans to delight in, as The Nun II is pretty consistently scary throughout, especially when Valak is wreaking havoc. Though, that’s not the only threat looming large in this somewhat chaotic but wickedly fun sequel. We’ve also got exceedingly creepy kids to deal with, as well as a new chill-inducing soldier of Hell.
I won’t ruin your enjoyment by saying any more than that. But trust me when I tell you to expect some truly memorable moments and the kind of frights that will raise your blood pressure.
Yes, there are jump scares galore, and I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But most of them land pretty well and feel earned rather than cheap and lazy. On more than one occasion, I jumped out of my seat, and it was far more thrilling than eye-rolling.
Fortunately, Carver combines those gotcha moments with plenty of genuine slow-building dread that makes those big moments feel far more gratifying.
The pacing is relentless, and many of the scenes kept me squarely on the edge of my seat.
There’s one especially powerful scene teased in the trailer that everyone will be talking about involving a magazine stand, and it’s truly a work of art that helps emphasize the well-honed expertise behind the camera — especially when you learn it was pulled off through clever practical execution rather than digital manipulation.
With effective use of lighting, plenty of ominous atmosphere (something the original mastered as well), and crowd-pleasing set pieces, the ample viciousness combined with exalted visuals make this a treat to watch.
I’d be remiss not to recognize the work of cinematographer Tristan Nyby, who delivers a gorgeous gothic flair to the proceedings.
Carver doesn’t play it perfectly safe, and much of the masterful mayhem involves little girls, making it all the more sinister and potent. The final act is unhinged in the best possible way, combining copious supernatural scares, enough adventure lore — and the wielding of an ancient relic — to make Indiana Jones proud, a spectacular set piece offering an inventive way to fight Valak, and some well-executed action scenes.
It’s difficult not to see The Nun II as a significant step up from the first film.
It takes everything that worked about The Nun and elevates it while correcting some of the sins of the past and dramatically ramping up the tension and scares.
A smart script and great performances ensure this film also delivers the emotional depth and well-drawn characters that have helped make The Conjuring films so successful.
While working quite well as a standalone supernatural terror, The Nun II adds some creative lore that helps strengthen its ties to the bigger Conjuring Universe. And while there may be a bit too much in the way of complicated mythology for some viewers, I’d argue that it’s handled with great finesse and ingenuity.
If you enjoyed The Nun or are generally a fan of films from this franchise, I have no doubt this well-crafted sequel will delight you. If you’re among the many who think The Nun squandered its potential and left you wanting more, I urge you to give Chaves a chance to win you over with this superior sequel.
Chaves and Cooper deliver a tight script, strong pacing, investing characters, stellar production design, and an admirable commitment to scaring the living hell out of you.
See it in the theater if you can for a far more immersive experience and to fully appreciate the impressive visuals. You’ll also want to stay for a short but important mid-credits scene that’s a must for fans of the franchise.