Audiences almost never met Valak, the demonic nun who scared the Warren family beyond belief in 2016’s horror blockbuster The Conjuring 2.
Valak — portrayed by Bonnie Aarons — was a last-minute substitution for an animatronic demon that director James Wan viewed as a bad fit for the emotional core of the film. This choice evidently paid off, because it not only established Valak as one of the most iconic horror villains of the past decade, but it also led to two spin-off movies based on the character.
It is this level of creative intent and care that made the Conjuring series such a roaring success at its inception, and it comes as no surprise that it quickly built itself into an interconnected cinematic universe — aptly named “The Conjuring Universe.”
Recently, however, there appears to be a decline in the quality of this franchise — one that has been exacerbated by a chain of disappointing entries that have left audiences more tired than terrified.
This downturn traces back to 2018’s The Nun — a cliche horror film that neglects to do anything exciting with its material. Nevertheless, it went on to become the most successful movie in the Conjuring series to date, hinting at an issue that is indicative of the franchise as a whole.
As it stands currently, The Conjuring Universe is stuck in a cycle of producing subpar films that still manage to yield solid box office returns. As the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time, is there any urgency to reinvent the wheel?
Unfortunately, The Nun II — the ninth and newest installment in the Conjuring series — fails to summon up any fresh feelings of dread. Woefully lacking in originality, this film is unable to distinguish itself from its predecessors whatsoever, succumbing instead to the complacency that has cursed this franchise as of late.
Set in the 1950s, The Nun II moves its action from an abbey in Romania to a boarding school in France, one that is under attack by a mysterious supernatural force. Yet again, Sister Irene (played by Taissa Farmiga) is dispatched by the Cardinal to investigate this paranormal occurrence, forcing her to confront an evil presence she defeated once before.
In his third outing with the Conjuring franchise, director Michael Chaves wrings a few solid chills out of this film’s uninspired premise, including a standout sequence where Irene watches in horror as Valak slowly manifests in the pages of a magazine stand. But, there’s a frustrating lack of suspense to be found beyond these concentrated moments of terror.
The thrill from the first Conjuring came from its almost agonizing buildup of fear, crafting genuine tension before revealing the evil entities lurking in the shadows.
None of that setup can be found in The Nun II — the film is either unleashing an endless amount of derivative and loud jumpscares, or its characters are toiling through convoluted exposition scenes at a languid pace.
Because there’s already been a whole film dedicated to Valak, there’s barely any additional insight into the villain granted to the viewer here. The only real character development arrives in the form of an ancestral backstory for Irene, which comes across solely as a dire way to force the plot along.
As The Nun II draws to a close, it’s clear that no major implications or stakes for future Conjuring projects were established — stressing just how tenuous the links between the films in this cinematic universe are at this moment in time. Without a compelling enough hook, audiences are left with virtually no reason to come back for another installment.
The muted audience reaction during and after the opening night showing I attended seemed to suggest that moviegoers are not satisfied with merely getting more of the same cheap thrills. If these films stop putting in the effort to scare audiences in new and exhilarating ways, will horror fans stop showing up to the theater for them as well?
With another film already in development, I am curious to see if the Conjuring series can return to the ingenuity that once made it such a frightening name in horror, or if audiences will start to exorcize themselves of this franchise for good.