Before “The Nun” rolled up and crushed something like $133 million worldwide on its opening weekend, the biggest nun-themed news of the summer involved a Catholic orphanage in Vermont where nuns tormented (and even killed) orphans, a pair of nuns in Colombia arrested on charges of torture of kids, and the systematic child abuse in the church in Pennsylvania. At least since 1973, when “The Exorcist” made mad bank and became the first horror film nominated for Best Picture, the Roman Catholic Church has served as a dual character in American scary movies. Creepy and superstitious and thorny-bloody-crucifixy as the church is, sometimes it’s the best way to fight a damn demon.
You get that duality in “The Nun,” the fifth movie in the universe of “The Conjuring” after Warner Bros. brought a couple of “Annabelle” movies to life. Your husband-wife tag-team of paranormal investigators appear here only as bookends. Mostly, we’re back in Romania in 1952, where a young Catholic nun-to-be (Taissa Farmiga, sister to Vera, who helmed two “Conjuring” films in the series) and a grizzled Vatican priest (Demián Bichir, once Oscar-nominated!) who specializes in exorcism are pursuing the case of an unbelievably spooky abby where a villager has recently found a nun hanged above the front steps, a buffet for crows. We happen to know this particular demise was a suicide, so she wouldn’t be possessed by some evil thing that lives in the basement.
What we can never make much sense of is how blithely our heroes — including the villager, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) — wade in, even as corpses seem to move on their own, ghostly nuns roam about, radios turn on by themselves and crucifixes slow-spin on the wall till they point straight down. (Toward hell, you see.) You do get some laughs, at least, from Frenchie — who, try as he might, can’t quite shake the feeling that he’d like to shack up with this future young woman of the cloth. And hand it to Bichir, who’s sort of a hybrid of Bruce Campbell and “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” who’s stuck trying to claw his way out of coffins and fighting off demonic snakes, nevertheless convincing the viewer he has some chump windowless office at the Vatican where, on slow days, he thumbs through medieval texts about possession.
“The Nun” is a haunted house movie, and a comfortably campy one at that. Low-budget horror is often the most effective (what could be cheaper, after all, than the dark?), and aside from some passable practical effects, “The Nun” may do little better than simply blowing out candles at the right time, shifting an object menacingly when it’s just out of frame, and back-lighting crucifixes and black-habited nuns. The story hinges on a thing they keep calling “the evil,” an underexplained occult presence that needs a relic to ward off. I’m not saying you could’ve written the script over a long weekend, but I’m also not not saying that.
The evil does like to appear (as it did in a memorable “Conjuring 2” scene) as a monster nun with yellow eyes and huge scissory teeth, very Baraka a la “Mortal Kombat.” Everything about the nun and her freaky-ass haunted cold-stone Transylvanian blood-spattered abby from hell says “call reinforcements” and/or “bring in a Super Soaker of holy water.” And yet the cheap-thrills fun of “The Nun” is knowing how little sense any of it needs to make to get its point across. You won’t laugh at “The Nun” so much as you’ll laugh with it. More precisely, you’ll laugh at yourself for jumping in your seat, muttering “JEEzuz,” and feeling like a kid who just cussed in church.