The Nun’s Valak Is a Modern Horror Icon, but the First Film Let the Demon Nun Down

To become an Iconic horror monster, you need the right introduction. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are interesting examples because while the plots of those films were largely about a specific case, the side stories about other nasty things out there ended up becoming spin-off and sequel spawning juggernauts.

Annabelle the creepy doll stole the thunder from the main story of The Conjuring, and suddenly the doll was a new horror icon that got three whole films dedicated to it. Those movies weren’t on par with The Conjuring itself, but they sure were a successful first stab at creating a Conjuring Universe.

The trick was repeated with The Conjuring 2. It’s mostly about the Enfield Hauntings, but a side story about the demon Valak was all most people could talk about afterward. Valak took on the visage of a Nun and thanks to Bonnie Aarons‘ terrifying gaze, we got another branch on the Conjuring money tree.

While Annabelle was well served with her decent outings, Valak’s solo effort The Nun is a curious beast. It’s popular, like insanely popular, and a quick look at the box office receipts tells you it’s currently the highest-grossing film in The Conjuring Universe. Valak is a modern horror character that even non-horror fans seem to be drawn to. So, between that appearance in The Conjuring 2 and The Nun, it was a job done, right?

But Valak’s success is almost in spite of The Nun. The 2018 film by Corin Hardy has some sumptuous gothic horror atmosphere in places, and it’s got Valak. But as a story? Well, The Conjuring series tends to work best with an anchor point in reality, and this story is entirely fictional. That’s not a concrete fact by any means (see the third Conjuring film), but it is a touch suspect that The Nun often feels like it lacks the emotional weight needed to make Valak truly terrifying.

Kicking the Habit

Credit: Universal

The story of The Nun is set years before the events of The Conjuring 2, opening on a young nun (surprising, I know) who takes her own life while residing at a cloistered abbey in Romania. So, a trouble veteran priest and a novitiate called Sister Irene, who is on the threshold of her final vows, are sent by the Vatican to investigate. What they find are dark secrets and of course, a demonic nun by the name of Valak.

A simmering relationship between Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) is about as much investment as we get into any character in The Nun. There’s brush stroke versions of people on the cusp of the story being told, and a rather plodding plot to boot.

Chronologically, this is the first story in the Conjuring Universe (Annabelle has a scene in another movie that takes place before this though), and while its connections are fairly loose, it does seem to impact the pacing, which is careful, hesitant, and almost afraid to give breath to its scares. If the plan wasn’t always there to send Valak off on her own voyage, then the turnaround between The Conjuring 2 and The Nun would have been fairly tight. The way the film feels so unsure of itself, it would seem likely that played a part.

The Nun has a great monster, but a story that draws every cheap trick in the book onto the page and spews it forth on the screen. It’s not that The Nun is bad necessarily, it just doesn’t manage the same majestic trick as The Conjuring where it turns the familiar into masterful, effective horror. The mark is repeatedly missed and that inevitable comparison to the mainline movies causes further damage to the image of what could have been an engrossing Euro-horror-flavored treat.

Valak summoned enough money to make the sequel we have today an inevitability. It wouldn’t be the first time a memorable horror character shrugged off a poor film and remained relevant. But imagine Valak had got the correct treatment the first time out?