‘The Nun II’ Repeats the Same Jump Scares in a New French Setting

Out of the entire “The Conjuring” franchise, the character of the Nun really functions as nothing more than a jump scare. Like Michael Myers, she works best as an eerie presence that terrifies the viewer out of sheer silence. At a distance she’s quite the unnerving sight. Once she bares her pointy teeth one too many times, the effect is lost. Of course that’s not the case with devoted fans. They made 2018’s “The Nun” enough of a hit that now we’re getting “The Nun II.” Stylistically it’s a superior sequel, with better atmosphere despite an even more ludicrous plot. Taissa Farmiga is also back as the demon slayer nun who reminds us that in Hollywood, hero nuns are all gorgeous, even more so when doing battle with dark forces.

The first movie took place in 1950s Romania, this follow up is set in 1950s France. Irene (Farmiga), who battled the evil demon Valak aka the Nun (Bonnie Aarons) in the last movie, lives in a picturesque convent with the newly-initiated Debra (Storm Reid). Her previous exploit has turned into legend, hushed by other nuns in their downtime. We learn Father Burke was made a Bishop for his role in the holy battle (which explains why Demián Bichir is absent). But over in the town of Tarascon, a priest facing a dark entity at his church is burned alive. Church officials are convinced this means Valak has returned, so they send Irene to investigate. It just so happens that at a local boarding school, Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), the suave French-Canadian guide from the first movie, now works as a handyman. He is also the new host of Valak. You may recall at the end of “The Nun” he had an upside-down cross impressed on the back of his neck. Well, turns out Valak will use poor Maurice as its latest vessel.

“The Nun II” is directed by Michael Chaves, who also helmed “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” He has a strong eye for gothic stylings and gives the settings a proper eeriness with low-lit streets that look like nightmares, courtesy of cinematographer Tristan Nyby. In a rather funny comparison, this movie is similar to the recent “The Equalizer 3” in that the locale sells itself better than the story. Unlike the first “Nun,” where the filmmakers apparently forgot that 1950s Romania was a communist state, there’s a better effort here in bringing back a bygone post-war France. Chaves then combines the period touches with one or two decent, isolated scares, such as a moment where Irene looks at a newsstand where the vintage magazines begin to form the shape of Valak. But these are a few good moments in a movie that runs the same laps around its concept.

The appeal of the “Conjuring” movies is the paranormal detective angle involving the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, older sister of Taissa). Every movie gives them some new demonic case to resolve. The challenge with the Nun aka Valak, is in giving it anything to do other than just popping out of a wall screaming or standing in a hallway with that creepy grin. Why Valak, who a priest explains was once an angel shunned by God, chooses to take on the same nun form over and over is never quite explained. Though, being part of hell’s legions doesn’t come with that many perks when you consider the sacred object the demon is desperate to attain for unclear purposes, other than making more people scream down moody hallways and dusty storage spaces. Valak also doesn’t know how to watch itself. In “The Nun” it was sent back to the underworld when Irene spit a bit of Christ’s blood in its face. The climax in the sequel is just as campy and simple, but it might also inspire chortles and thirst.

Writers Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing and Akela Cooper are curiously not that interested in the two most intriguing characters, those being Irene and Debra. Taissa Farmiga has such a welcoming presence and Storm Reid, so good in “The Last of Us,” is woefully underused. Farmiga paces around, looking sternly at the demon or surprised at Maurice for most of the movie. New details about her childhood and a very devout mother are added, though becoming nothing more than a convenient tool for a later twist. Reid mostly screams, looks shocked when a boarding school girl is attacked by Valak and screams some more. Their set-up at the beginning features their best moment when Debra tells Irene about moving to Europe after experiencing racism in the Jim Crow South. The writers are more focused on generating corny empathy through Maurice, who clearly likes Kate (Anna Popplewell), a teacher at the boarding school. He shields her daughter, Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey), from the school’s required mean girls (soon to be spooked by the demon).

Since Maurice is possessed by Valak, we’re meant to hope against hope that Irene can save him. But there’s nothing else to it. The procession of the story turns into the eerie nun roaring out of walls, breaking a neck or two, hiding in dark corners and finally facing off with Irene one more time. The jump scares circle around each other, repeating the same pattern. Chaves keeps teasing us with visually engaging flashes, like a backstory involving medieval pagans. Alas, there’s too little of it. There is an audience for this kind of movie who want nothing more than to just see the nun in “The Nun II” spread some havoc. The filmmakers know it will bring in a crowd no matter what. But as a movie it adds nothing to the “Conjuring” franchise or to its premise. Once Valak grabs what it’s been looking for, you’re inspired to ask, “That’s it?” It’s all become such a franchise machine that a tradition in all “Conjuring” universe movie finales is now pushed back to after the initial end credits, Marvel style. Bottom line, if you want more of the nun, you get more of the nun. Let us pray the next chapter is blessed with fresher ideas.“

The Nun II” releases Sept. 8 in theaters nationwide.