Now on its ninth feature entry in just a decade, the “Conjuring” franchise has proved something of a powerhouse in the continued growth of horror as one of the most reliably popular (not to mention cost-effective) mainstream film genres. Their mythologies may be garbled and silly, the scares mostly “jump” ones, yet these movies provide a kind of creepy comfort food — familiarly formulaic jolts unlikely to trouble any non-child viewer’s sleep later on — whose satisfactions are amplified by the good actors and superior atmospherics deployed.
Defying the law of diminishing returns, 2018’s spinoff “The Nun” was (and so far remains) the franchise’s biggest hit to date. Ergo enter “The Nun II,” a direct sequel. In some respects an improvement on its predecessor, in others not, this is finally one more good-enough if unmemorable entry sure to extend the series’ life in lucrative fashion.
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Storywise, the prior “Nun” entry (whose titular figure got introduced in 2016’s “Conjuring 2”) was cluttered and near-nonsensical, little more than a string of “boo!” incidents sending novitiate Taissa Farmiga and Vatican priest Demian Bichir a-hunting demons in Cold War-era Romania. But Corin Hardy’s film was a spooky treat in purely visual terms, with rich, ornate old-school Gothic atmospherics (swirling fog, refracted light et al.) as if shot by 1960s Mario Bava, or on the 1940s Universal backlot.
Part Deux is less distinctive in that department. But it’s got a somewhat stronger narrative framework — even if that structure keeps Farmiga’s ostensible protagonist somewhat sidelined from the main strand for a ponderously long time. After an opening sequence in which a malevolent spirit frightens an altar boy (Maxime Elias-Menet), we find Sister Irene (Farmiga) a novice no more. She’s now living in an Italian nunnery where everyone has heard of the possession horrors experienced in Romania four years earlier. Still, no one here knows she was a witness and survivor to those events, not even her friend Sister Debra (Storm Reid), an American of uncertain faith who’s taken the cloth less out of devotion than family-pressured obligation.
Unfortunately, that anonymity ends when Vatican representatives turn up once more. They require Irene’s involvement because a series of baffling deaths amongst clerics suggests the titular demon (originally summoned by necromancy in the Dark Ages) is back, and burning a westward path across Europe. Indeed, it seems to be headed toward her erstwhile helpmate Maurice, aka Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who’s currently employed as a handyman at a girls’ boarding school near Aix-en-Provence.
That is where the action is in “Nun II,” even as director Michael Chaves and his writers contrive business to occupy Sisters Irene and Debra on their circuitous journey there. Strapping Quebecois nice guy Maurice has also kept his past supernatural perils to himself, preferring to pitch discreet woo toward resident teacher Kate (Anna Popplewell) and take a fatherly interest in her bullied daughter Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey).
This school was once a monastery, its chapel boarded up since being hit by a WW2 bomb that claimed the life of the stern headmistress’ (Suzanne Bertish) son. But that shuttered historic location hides other secrets, ones that evidently attract the dread Demon Nun (Bonnie Aarons). And kind-hearted Maurice may be obliviously carrying a force that will make him a tool in her terrible return, if Irene and the others don’t arrive in time to thwart it.
Chaves (whose third series contribution this is, following “The Curse of La Llorona” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”) doesn’t attempt the kind of chiaroscuro lighting and fantastical sets that made the first “Nun” a trove of retro haunted-house eye candy. But there are still some handsome French locations utilized, and Tristan Nyby’s widescreen cinematography finds atmosphere enough in the inky black recesses of Stephane Cressend’s production design, where within every dark corner duly lurks an unpleasant surprise.
Not that those surprises are terribly surprising — just the usual array of ghoulie-faces going “Rrrarrrr!!” and occasionally killing somebody or hurtling them against a wall by sheer force of evil exhalation. Nor does the dread lady herself offer much mystique beyond sharp teeth and glowing eyes under a cowl.
There are showy interludes that aren’t worth the CG fuss, like one in which a magazine display rack’s pages flutter until they comprise a mosaic image of guess-who. On the other hand, a goat demon that materializes to terrorize the school’s populace provides welcome scary variety. Once Farmiga finally arrives to find all hell already breaking loose, things reach a suitable boil — before predictably boiling over amid an excess of exaggerated peril and false cease-fires.
In case you were wondering what any of this has to do with the rest of the “Conjuring” universe, a brief tag featuring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga provides some semblance of connection. You might also ponder what happened to “Nun” star Bichir, who presumably passed on this chapter — his character’s absence is explained with notable dismissiveness as due to a cholera death. In any case, primary emphasis here goes to Bloquet and young Downey, with the junior Farmiga somewhat unexpectedly granted no more attention than Reid at a climax where she’s meant to be MIP. All these performers do solid work under the circumstances. The script hardly requires much nuance, though, and a parting slurp of sentimentality doesn’t compensate.
It’s not the destination that matters in these movies, however, but the chills en route. (Just as well, too, since “The Nun II” culminates in something reminiscent of the prior film’s inane apex, in which Sister Irene literally spat the blood of Christ into a demon’s face.) Ably scored by series newcomer Marco Beltrami, the movie stirs enough pleasurably menacing sound and fury to pass muster — never mind that when the final credits wrap, few will remember just where it leaves the overall “Conjuring” saga, let alone why.
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