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‘The Nun II’ has double the characters and a bigger story, but can’t shake Conjuring habits

The ninth entry in the ever-sprawling Conjuring Universe gets an uptick in terms of story heft, but elects to show you the same old tricks.

Warner Bros Pictures

Nine entries into The Conjuring Universe and around $2.1 billion earned; these contained sets of horror films resonate with audiences who want the pantheon of cursed dolls, haunted houses, paranormal investigating couples – or, in The Nun’s case, a demon with an unnerving gaze. First introduced in 2016’s The Conjuring 2, Valek (portrayed by Bonnie Aarons), Valak has become as much of a totem as Annabelle and The Warrens. The Nun II looks to do what many horror sequels do in flipping the script regarding pace and story expansion. It's great to have the atmosphere down, but something must be behind it to make everything click.

2018’s The Nun took its time uncovering the unholy underbelly of the Romanian countryside at Saint Cartha’s monastery. Director Michael Chaves, who has directed two installments of this universe (2019’s The Curse of La Llorona and 2021’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), changes the setting and turns up the energy right off the back. Taking place four years after the first film, we go to 1956 France, where Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) has joined another convent with the hopes of putting the trauma of the past behind her.

Warner Bros Pictures

But some things don’t stay dead – in this case, evil entities who are up to no good. There has been a rash of violent murders among various priests and nuns throughout Europe. The happenings of Saint Cartha have become a legend, and the Vatican comes to Sister Irene –asking her to do battle with Valak once again. To Chaves credit, his prior works serve him well regarding The Nun II and how it fits into the aesthetic of films before it. The Valak entity doesn’t just lurk in the shadows, around corners, or suddenly pop up after a character looks in another spot in the room – the entity carries a different viciousness this time (at least early on).

Cinematographer Tristan Nyby also pairs this with keeping Valak in darker spaces only to enhance the piercing eyes of Aarons and keep the audience off their axis. Sometimes, this works, but if you’re familiar with many Conjuring set pieces, you can parse when things hit their apex. Where The Nun was exposition-heavy, serving most of its characters on a platter to its maleficent antagonist, co-writers Akela Cooper, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing look to beef up the characterization side of things. The stakes aren't as high if you don’t have people you care about.

Sister Irene finds a somewhat kindred spirit in Sister Debra (Storm Reid), a young nun who drives the head sisters up a wall because she won’t go to confessional. Debra is searching for the evidence of a miracle – her mother was a victim of racist violence in Mississippi, and her father thought it would be best to send her off to a convent. There’s a story involving Irene’s mother (the details I won’t spoil here) that at least initially connects the two. However, it becomes apparent that this device is more of a vehicle that drives Irene’s story forward. Reid does fine in the role of demon-fighting-nun in training, but I wish more attention were given to the threads teased to fulfill her character’s desire than being a sidekick.

Warner Bros Pictures

All roads lead to a boarding school in France, where Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) has set up shop as the school’s repairman. From a distance, it seems as though he’s taking a liking to a teacher named Kate (Anna Popplewell) and her daughter Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey). Sophie herself has to battle an ensemble of mean girls. If the troubles of elementary school aren’t enough, the school is home to the lurking of the Marquis of Snakes.

What Valak is after and how the spirit seeks to obtain it puts the path of all parties involved on a collision course. While there are interesting observations of legend and what faith means, it becomes abandoned in the sacrifice of what the tempo of a Conjuring film should be. Chaves throws as much as you as possible – presenting Valak in different shapes and forms so that her usual presentation doesn’t get stale.

There's a sense of tension when it’s apparent that nobody is spared from her wrath – which quickly dissipates when it elects to fall into old story habits. The Nun II is Sister Irene and Frenchie’s story – while Valak may be everlasting, I’m not sure how many more abandoned chapels are left to terrorize.