The Nun II
Taissa Farmiga (center) as Sister Irene in New Line Cinema's horror thriller The Nun II, a Warner Bros. Pictures release; © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. Pictures

The demon in The Nun II wears a lot of makeup, which exaggerates her features and facial expressions. If it were not for her glowing eyes and sharp teeth, you might think she were a clown. Director Michael Chaves improves upon the stiff original 2018 film, which was much too serious, by recognizing the comic potential of his monster. Not unlike the Babadook or Pennywise, Chaves’ iteration of a demon nun has a playful streak—albeit a wicked one—that creates a sense of anticipation that is equal parts silly and terrifying. Sure, Chaves includes plenty of religious imagery and a climax that borders on blasphemy, but he stages all the horror sequences like he wants to create a fun house where only the audience, not his characters, are in on the gag.

Chaves and his three screenwriters do not require audiences to be familiar with the original film, which was set in 1950s Romania (the film never acknowledges how Romania was under the Iron Curtain during that period, which all but forbade organized religion and Western visitors, but I digress). Right after a prologue where a demonic force sets an elderly French priest on fire, there is a scene where a mother superior summarizes the events from the first film. She tells the story like it’s a legend, except it all actually happened to Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga—yes, the real-life sister of The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga), a plucky nun whose approach to faith is more practical than pious. Irene wants to put the events from The Nun behind her, and then a representative from the Vatican tells her a demon is killing again. Irene leaves the convent where she lives, her friend Sister Debra (Storm Reid) in tow, and together they track the demon to an all-girls boarding school in rural France that may have a religious relic in its floorboards.

There is also a concurrent plot at the boarding school, where the handyman Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), who helped Irene defeat the demon the first time, still has a symbiotic relationship to the evil. The details and circumstances that lead Irene and Maurice back together are almost immaterial, since The Nun II jettisons plot specifics in favor of set pieces where the demon messes with, well, everyone. Some of the scenes are playful, like when the wide-eyed innocent schoolgirl Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey) wanders through an abandoned chapel and the demon (in its nun form) makes her presence known without scaring her. Much like other films in The Conjuring franchise, of which this is a part, Chaves, who directed the 2021 franchise installment The Devil Made Me Do It, includes an abundance of jump scares. Although, crucially, he does not rely on them. Sometimes he realizes that periods of silence do not always need a scary payoff, a decision that creates anticipation for bigger scares down the line.

There are also subtle flourishes of creativity that add to the demon’s mythos. The Nun II recreates the shape and shadow of the demon nun in unlikely places. There is an early scene where Sophie finds herself inside a room full of statues, many of which are covered by blankets, which make them look like nuns. Another scene happens in a clock tower, where lights from the windows beam out like the nun’s demonic eyes. The biggest flourish happens midway through the film, where the nun appears on the pages of a magazine rack. The scene plays similarly to the slideshow sequence in IT, except the Nun’s playfulness is more subtextual. This demon can change its shape to whatever is scariest to its intended target, though its shape-shifting is taken through the filter of Catholicism and a cliquey boarding school, like when it opts for the form of a human-size, barely anthropomorphized goat.

Individual scenes are so effective, with Chaves having such command over the audience, that it is best not to ask too many questions about the narrative tissue that connects them. At the point where it is most convenient to the plot, Irene announces she has a friend who is an occult expert. It turns out his purpose is to provide exposition and drive Irene and Debra to the location of the final showdown (he disappears as soon as he’s no longer needed). Come to think of it, The Nun II blurs the separation between its parallel plotlines, to the point that it is a shock when Irene screams out “Sophie!” in abject terror. It’s to the film’s credit that these filler scenes are knowingly ancillary, or are flimsy by design. They do not elaborate too much because Chaves believes, true to his audience, that we do not care about airtight plotting.

The original 2018 film looked great, an evocation of the classic nun film Black Narcissus, but the sequel’s cinematographer, Tristan Nyby, does not have the same ambition. That is just as well because a finely crafted image does not matter when you’re squirming in your seat, or yelping after a jump scare. There are some things in the sequel worth dwelling over, like how Irene uses Catholic dogma to make transubstantiation a kind of holy weapon, though the surface-level frights are a kind of assurance. This is not the kind of horror that shakes us to our core; it will not make us question our beliefs, or give us nightmares. By lowering its ambition into loveable B-grade schlock, The Nun II elevates its pleasures into the best kind of cinematic trash.

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The Nun II opens in theaters on Sept. 8.