Frightening Friday: ‘The Nun’ (2018) and ‘The Curse of La Llorona’ (2019) give added weight – maybe too much – to the ‘Conjuring’ Universe (Movie reviews)

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he “Conjuring” Universe is now seven films strong – with an eighth (“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”) on the way in September. The two main “Conjuring” entries and the “Annabelle” trilogy comprise five of the films. That leaves the two oddballs, which I’ll review here: “The Nun” (2018) and “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019).

“The Nun”

“The Conjuring 2” (2016) is such a good movie that even the random addition of The Nun within its narrative enriches the film rather than playing like an entry point for a spinoff – which it actually is. Writer Gary Dauberman, who also created the “Annabelle” series, opens up the CU with its longest-ago prequel, set in 1952 Romania. Director Corin Hardy – competent in his only major credit so far – captures both the real Romanian outdoors and the creepy castle with its labyrinth of corridors.

Hardy’s emphasis on cloaked figures hiding their faces – be they the good nuns of the castle or the evil one of the title — and a Gregorian-chant-laden score by Abel Korzeniowski are all about setting a mood, and they do it well.

Demian Bichir classes up “The Nun” as Father Burke, a Spanish-accented priest with a troubled past. I don’t hold it against the actor that Burke is a precise “Exorcist” ripoff, and that many of his perilous situations, like being buried alive, are notably clichéd. Taissa Farmiga plays a more off-the-beaten-path character, heroic nun-to-be Sister Irene. Jonas Bloquet rounds out the lead trio as common man Frenchie.

Dauberman gives “The Nun” a sense of mystery without truly crafting a mystery; in a way, this is a neat trick. However, I think he could’ve been more creative, since in the end we’re still back to the basic idea of a demon in the form of a nun – or The Nun, as it were.

Hardy’s emphasis on cloaked figures hiding their faces – be they the good nuns of the castle or the evil one of the title — and a Gregorian-chant-laden score by Abel Korzeniowski are all about setting a mood, and they do it well. That said, the idea of ever watching “The Nun” again is unappealing, even compared to the other CU films to which I gave the same grade. The mood is oppressive, and touches of light like the almost-cute Frenchie-Irene relationship don’t have a chance of breaking through.

“The Nun” looks like the most expensive and expansive CU film, challenging the notion that these spinoffs are money-grabs done on the cheap. The story’s resolution is what makes it play more like a money-grab. It sort of hooks up with “Conjuring 2” in the sense that we know The Nun is still out there, but it’s not a precise linkage, thus leaving room for a “Nun 2.” (Indeed, a sequel is in development.) Likewise, it doesn’t nix the idea of Taissa Farmiga’s Irene being related to Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren (the actresses are sisters), but nor does it affirm the idea.

Because the production values are so good, I rebel against the idea of this being the worst of the seven CU films (which is how audiences rank it). I think the first “Annabelle” is slightly worse, and “La Llorona” and “Annabelle Comes Home” are less creative. But because the look and sound of “The Nun” aim toward a dark and grim setting and experience, I can see where the general audience is coming from.

“The Curse of La Llorona”

Set in 1973, soon after “Annabelle Comes Home” (also 2019), “The Curse of La Llorona” is seriously hurt by the fact that the story holds no mystery. I was familiar with the Weeping Woman folklore from, of all things, the “Angel” novel “Bruja.” But it has popped up in many TV shows (“The Alienist,” “Supernatural,” “Grimm”) that the CU audience has likely seen.

I like when he frames shots so La Llorona can be barely glimpsed off to the side or in the shadows, with our eyes gradually adjusting till we see her shape. But the film could’ve used even more creepiness.

And it’s also explained early in this film: A few centuries ago, a Mexican woman drowns her kids in a fit of pique after her husband cheats on her. Immediately remorseful, La Llorona kills herself and now her ghost roams the Earth seeking other kids to exchange for her own.

As mother Anna, Linda Cardellini (“Freaks and Geeks”) seems at home in the 1970s in a nondescript American town, and her small kids (Roman Christou as Chris and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen as Samantha) provide tasty morsels for La Llorona.

This is the biggest film so far for director Michael Chaves, and his work is a respectable calling card for his bigger next entry, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” I like when he frames shots so La Llorona can be barely glimpsed off to the side or in the shadows, with our eyes gradually adjusting till we see her shape. But the film could’ve used even more creepiness.

Cardellini and the child actors are consistently sympathetic leads, even though they do that horror-movie thing of continuing to live in a dimly-lit house with the drapes drawn when they know a ghost is somewhere in there with them. I’d open the shades wide and turn every light on, but that’s just me. Raymond Cruz comes along as ex-priest Rafael and does his best to give both weight and charm to the proceedings, but there’s not enough in the screenplay for him to work with.

“La Llorona” is watchable enough for CU completists, but ultimately too rote of an exercise to be anything more than a middling diversion for the average moviegoer.

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