“The Nun II” is the ninth film in the “Conjuring Universe,” a franchise tied to the adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, but it is the third in the series chronologically. Demon-in-a-nun’s-habit Valak (Bonnie Aarons) has made appearances in installments both earlier and later in the franchise’s chronology. In other words, not only has this villain been defeated before, but I know for a fact that she’ll be defeated again. It’s hard to see the stakes as particularly high or Valak as particularly effective with that kind of record. Just like it’s hard to take this horror movie particularly seriously when the studio decided to release it in early September instead of closer to Halloween.
Valak isn’t destined to take over the world (in the movie or out of it), so the greatest investment one can reasonably make is caring about the fates of the main characters. For fans that even remember 2018’s “The Nun” (the fifth film released in the “Conjuring Universe,” but the first chronologically), Taissa Farmiga is back as Valak-defeater Sister Irene, as is porter-turned-Valak-vessel Maurice (Jonas Bloquet). New this time are Irene’s companion Sister Debra (Storm Reid, a very of-her-era actress that feels out of place in this 1956-set movie), as well as Kate (Anna Popplewell) and her daughter (Katelyn Rose Downey), a teacher and student respectively, at the school where Maurice now works as a groundskeeper. I guess they’re all likeable enough, though no more that any number of similar characters in these movies.
Valak, possessing Maurice, is on a mission to possess the eyes of St. Lucy, a Christian martyr. Surprisingly, even though eye-gouging is an important part of the lore that serves as a catalyst for this movie’s action, the movie never really engages in eyeball- or eyelessness-based horror. On one hand, I kind of respect the movie for not going for the obvious (or “cheap” or “exploitative”) gruesome visuals. But on the other hand, the movie may as well have gone for those as scares, because it isn’t effective with the ones it does give us.
Instead, the movie relies on jump scares, most of which involve Valak suddenly appearing, which are cheap and exploitative. I was scared out of my wits a few days ago by a small, well-intentioned child tapping me on the leg to let me know I’d dropped something. Anyone can pull off a jump scare, including people that aren’t even trying. The filmmakers are trying, of course, too hard and in an expensive fashion. And you know what? So is Valak. Valak is deliberately using whatever demonic powers are at her disposal to jump-scare people. She’s not exactly gaining anything by just popping up, her tactics rarely lead to defeated enemies or the furthering of her missions. My theory is that she needs a confidence boost because she knows deep down that she’s not really good at anything else.
It’s easy to see the filmmakers’ desperation to squeeze scares out of this weak material. They have to cheat and use dream sequences and cutaways because they know nothing scary is going to happen for a long stretch of time and they correctly sense that the audience is losing interest. Even when they have a good excuse to use Valak, it can only be for a quick burst because her appearance is only initially unsettling. Close-ups and lengthy looks at Valak are not this movie’s friend. Actually, that’s a good metaphor for this whole wing of the “Conjuring Universe,” Valak works great on the periphery of “The Conjuring 2” and “Annabelle Creation,” but when the movie is either installment of “The Nun” and the pressure is on her to be the main source of scares, it becomes apparent that all she has is popping out.
“The Nun II” is rated R for violent content and some terror. Its running time is 110 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.