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A UNIVERSE OF POTENTIAL: IS IT GOOD THAT THE CONJURING IS A UNIVERSE?

Written by Kat Albrecht

This weekend I journeyed out to the movie theater to take in a spectacle of disappointment titled The Nun II. I went to this movie for two reasons: 1) Bonnie Aarons is pretty scary as the titular demonic nun, 2) I have seen every other film in the Conjuring Universe.

Imagine my chagrin when I learned Bonnie Aarons is actually currently suing Warner Bros. for allegedly unpaid merchandise profits (very cringe of WB, if true!), and the Conjuring Universe lore in The Nun II is almost unconscionably lame.

With a release date on the heels of the new The Pope’s Exorcist franchise, I could not help but compare the second outing of The Conjuring’s nun spin-off to Russell Crowe’s subtly lighthearted treatment of real-life Exorcist James Bond, Father Gabriele Amorth. My conclusion is The Pope’s Exorcist is a pretty good movie.

Where The Pope’s Exorcist gives us moments of levity, characters with flaws, and a hero who doesn’t just always and without question follow the orders of the Church, The Nun II does the opposite. For the entirety of the deeply serious one hour and 50-minute run-time, our cast of sinless church warriors goes from place to place being holy and looking scared in aesthetically pleasing ways.

To be fair to The Nun II, things get more complicated when you have to write stories that exist in a filmic world that already has a set of rules. That is, in a normal series, if a sequel film wildly violates the ground rules of the films that come before it, there’s an opening for audiences to get upset about inconsistencies. The Nun II has extra hurdles to overcome, since it isn’t just bound by the lore of The Nun (I) but is also responsible for fitting into the larger Conjuring Universe.

The idea of a horror movie universe is extremely cool. This has been explored before, notably with the crossovers of old Universal Monsters characters starring in terribly serious films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), but The Conjuring team is taking it to a whole new level. When asked what his intentions were with the series of spin-off films, director James Wan said it was to “...just explore different sub-genres in the horror genre.” And so he has.

Since 2013, we’ve been treated a trio of mainline films, a set of spin-offs around haunted doll Annabelle, two films starring the Nun, and two more distant spin-offs with character reprisals in The Curse of La Llorona and Wolves at the Door. There’s even a number of short films adjacent to the series, though they are not cannon. Not to sound like a comic book movie aficionado criticizing yet another reboot, but as the Conjuring Universe becomes more and more developed, so too must the lore within its various parts. That is, if you want the benefits of the Universe and its built-in audience, you must also pay the price.

The Nun II doesn’t do enough to entangle or complicate the lore set up in The Nun, much less the universe overall. I even sat through the credits like I was at a screening of Thor 2, waiting impatiently for my post-credit scene, only to discover things I already know because I have watched every other film in the Conjuring Universe.

Take, for example, the noticeable absence of Father Burke – God-tier demon hunter from The Nun. What killed Father Burke? Was it the demon, was it a mysterious force? Nope, he died of Cholera. Which they mention in about ten seconds, and no one worries about him or his implied career’s worth of demon knowledge ever again. LAME. Find a man of a similar height and film him from a distance falling into hell, suggest he was the first person killed by the demon nun Valak upon its return, announce that he renounced the church and became a veterinarian – give me something.

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Another major gripe I have is in the film is every clue in The Nun II has a neat little answer, with a neat little solution. In a multidimensional cinematic universe, I want to see more misdirects, more bits of lore that aren’t important now but could be later. Even beyond the extremely linear plot to solving the problem of the current film, the character-y subplots are also very linear and brisk in their conclusions. For instance, the tepid subplot where Sister Debra ‘finds her faith’ concludes with…a single quick line at the end. For her part, Sister Irene continues to be Not Like Other Nuns and very special and magical by virtue of happening to be present. The Church continues to be a big hero defending the world.

The Conjuring Universe has given itself quite the task by making the Church the arbitrator of all relics and rules. Surely, this sets the franchise up to have its own meaningful schism, but in the meantime it’s really boring because I’ve seen those exact rules play out in half a dozen films. In the case of The Nun II, I didn’t need to actually watch the movie to know exactly how it unfolds and exactly what happens at the end.

I will be the first person to say that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – sometimes you’re in the mood for a movie called ‘Super-Mega Death Shark’ and you really do just want to see a super-mega death shark eat some people. However, by virtue of being part of a thoughtful cinematic universe, my expectations for the mainline plot of The Nun II were higher.

The Nun II is not all bad. Jonas Bloquet (Maurice) shows some nice acting range, and 14-year-old Katelyn Rose Downey (Sophie) carries a lot of the emotional pull of the film. Some of the scenes are really lovely, and I appreciated the concepts behind some of the shots. There’s an incredibly intricate and mechanically interesting scare sequence featuring a newsstand. Beyond being an impressive effect and an artistic shot, the scene pushes the rules of what Valak can actually control and manifest. More things like this would convince me there’s more to the story of the Nun that I haven’t seen yet.

Overall, though, the Conjuring Universe is doing something very important in building a better-budgeted and fan-supported world of horror films where genre exploration can happen on a larger scale than it might in stand-alone films. I hope that the brain trust behind the films continues to use this structure to push further and further rather than re-making their own movies. A personal sorrow of mine is the canceled spin-off, The Crooked Man, meant to be a dark fairy tale originating in The Conjuring 2.

But let’s be honest, no matter what the next movie is, I’ll probably go see it because after all, I’ve seen every other film in the Conjuring Universe.

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Kat Albrecht
Staff Reviewer
Kat Albrecht is a legally trained sociologist and computational social scientist studying how complex data can inform policy, with particular emphasis on the nexus of fear, criminal data, and the law. In other words, she’s a college professor who studies horror films sometimes. Her research specialties are practical special effects, creature features, and arguing about the meaning of genre. Kat will gleefully review any film that takes place in the ocean or in outer space and exclusively paints portraits of herself.
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