In an episode of his terrific podcast, Lore, host Aaron Mahnke tells the story of how, during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for coffins to come with a bell mechanism.
A thin rope would lead out from the coffin, snake through the six feet of earth, and would connect to a bell attached to the gravestone. This was done to prevent premature burial – or, the objectively terrifying scenario in which a living person – presumed dead – was buried, only for them to wake up hours later. Were an unfortunate soul to find themselves in such a predicament, the idea was for them to pull on the string, attract attention with the bell, and have themselves dug out and return to the land of the living.
According to Mahnke, this is where the term ‘saved by the bell’ originates from, although the veracity of this claim is… muddy.
Instances of premature burial were so common that Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about it, and a German doctor even conducted several experiments on himself to promote his state-of-the-art coffin, which came equipped with a feeding tube and a stock of sausages.
Watch the Nun trailer here
A similar situation makes for one of the most confusing set-pieces in The Nun, the latest film in the Conjuring Cinematic Universe. In it, a priest is lured out of his chamber in the dead of the night. Displaying the sort of idiocy only horror movie characters seem to possess, he spots a young boy and follows him into a graveyard. There, the priest (played by Oscar nominee Demian Bichir) comes to the realisation that the boy he’d been chasing in pitch darkness is, in fact, a ghost. Long story short, the boy regurgitates a snake (don’t ask) and pushes the priest into an open grave, which spontaneously fills itself in as a gravestone complete with the Father’s name magically appears on top.
Now, common logic – and a cursory knowledge of how films work – would dictate that the priest is simply having a nightmare. He’ll wake up any second now, you think, yelling in his bed and clawing at a coffin that doesn’t exist. But no. Not only does this scene play out in earnest, but when the priest is eventually rescued – or, ahem, saved by the bell – he vaguely blames it all on the presence of ‘evil’.
This abstract ‘evil’ is often invoked in The Nun – usually when the script runs out of logical explanations for things. Characters are prone to saying things such as, ‘the evil is escaping!’ and ‘the evil must be contained!’.
The evil that they refer to is Valak, a medieval demon who appears in the form of a nun, haunts an eerie Romanian monastery and will decades later make a cameo appearance in the Conjuring 2. No one dares approach the monastery – even the horses, who stop abruptly at the edge of the surrounding woods because ‘they are too afraid to go any further’. The villagers blame all their misfortune – child deaths, faltering businesses – on the evil that lurks within, the evil that resulted in one nun committing the ultimate sin: Suicide.
Upon hearing tales of this mysterious monastery – and perhaps sensing a PR nightmare brewing – the Vatican sends their best man to investigate. Father Burke (English name, Mexican actor, but who cares?) is to be accompanied by a novice, Sister Irene (played by Taissa Farmiga, sister of the Conjuring’s Vera) – who, it is implied, has some sort of history with Romania. But this plot – like many others in the film – is all but forgotten as the story goes along.
And that, in essence, is the problem with The Nun. It’s too thinly written for the audience to form any sort of connection with the characters, it relies too heavily on the goodwill of the Conjuring movies to have any identity of its own; and far too often, it defaults to the same, generic horror elements that these films have helped perpetuate in Hollywood – and, as evidenced by Netflix’s Ghoul, even abroad.
The Nun is directed by Corin Hardy, who is perhaps more known for a film he almost made than for the two that he actually has. For years, Hardy was supposed to direct a remake of the cult classic, The Crow – a project that could very well be cursed by Valak itself, considering the cloak of bad luck that shrouds it. He’d have been the perfect man for the job, because buried underneath his largely unremarkable work in The Nun, there are signs of a fine visual stylist, of someone who has a keen sense of Gothic imagery and atmosphere. But perhaps he isn’t the best fit to play inside someone else’s sandbox.
I am absolutely in the minority as far as these Conjuring and Annabelle movies are concerned. They routinely take the easy way out, favouring momentary victories over sustained terror – or mental stimulation, for that matter. Evil nuns are spooky, just like clowns and creepy dolls. That’s half the battle won already. But what a movie chooses to do with these perfect archetypal villains is what sets them apart. While It – the Stephen King adaptation, also co-written by this movie’s Gary Dauberman – chose to use Pennywise as a tool to explore childhood fears and growing pains, The Nun basically just yells at you from in the dark – no context, no subtext. As it turns out, there’s an audience for all kinds of horror.
For instance, the closest relative to The Nun isn’t a schlocky scary movie, but a quaint Romanian drama. Director Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, with zero jump scares and nearly twice the run time, manages to evoke more fear than most modern horror films. It’s part lesbian romance, part psychological thriller, and part exorcism horror. It’s unfortunate for The Nun that it must be held to such high standards.
It should be satisfying enough for fans of the Conjuring series – God knows if you’ve liked this stuff four times already then you’re probably down for another – but they’re really on their last breath here. It almost makes you want to urge them to tug on the rope.