The Nun II successfully subverts the classic exorcism movie

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The latest installment in the “Conjuring” franchise continues a formula of frights with a splash of religious world building.

Jump scares abound in “The Nun II,” a sequel to the 2018 film, which was itself a spinoff of the “Conjuring” franchise. It continues the misadventures of Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and the demonic force Valak (Bonnie Aarons).

This time, the call is coming from inside a house of religious education. While investigating a string of murders across Europe, Sister Irene posits that Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), or Frenchie, as he’s known — her farm boy companion from “The Nun” — may have become possessed by the demon force and, if so, is unknowingly harboring it at the Catholic boarding school in France where he now works. It’s up to Sister Irene and her new companion, a skeptical novitiate named Sister Debra (Storm Reid), to race over and stop the demon before it unleashes its full horrors.

The pacing of the film, set in the 1950s and directed by Michael Chaves, is too neat: It runs like haunted clockwork, shoving characters down dark alleyways or abandoned chapels every five minutes with little justification. Scene after scene builds fear and tension, and then a monster appears, and then … not much else, in most cases.

The Nun II is an arresting piece of storytelling which satisfies and subverts audience expectations in equal measure. On one level, it is an extremely watchable piece of action horror, comfortably divorced from reality. The demon from the previous film has resurfaced and is now stalking a group of thoroughly-likeable characters in a French boarding school.

Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), the eponymous nun who previously defeated the demon, has been called in once again by the church authorities. She is assisted by Sister Debra (Storm Reid), a novice who doubts her own faith. This premise makes for a classic battle between good and evil. And there’s a steady stream of scares as the tension builds, before exploding into a jump-out-of-your seat moment.

Those familiar with the real Catholic church will recognise that exorcisms, the sacraments, saints, holy relics and the respective roles of nuns and priests are not depicted with realism in The Nun II. And there is a casual side-stepping of the all-too-real gender constraints of the mid-20th century.

However, the Nun II does bring a refreshingly feminist gloss to well-worn tropes within exorcism fiction, shattering assumptions about who should be the victim and who should be the rescuer.

Subverting the demonic
In popular culture, the stereotypical possessed person is female and, frequently, a child. The seismic impact of the character of Regan in The Exorcist (1973) is undeniably one factor in this. But the idea has deep and ancient roots.

Research has demonstrated that possession and demonic attacks tend to be associated with women and girls, both in historical and contemporary Christian cultures. There are a variety of reasons for this.

In the middle ages and early modern era, women were seen as more carnal, less spiritual and weaker than men in both moral and intellectual terms. It was believed that this rendered them easier pickings for the devil. This thinking tied in with the biblical narrative that the serpent in the Garden of Eden deceived Eve rather than Adam. Of course, the point that Adam was feeble enough to take the fruit from his wife, despite God’s instruction, was either brushed under the carpet or used to further evidence the dangerous and malign female influence.

“The Conjuring” Universe celebrates 10 years in business this fall with the dull “The Nun II,” a movie that seems destined to pound a nail into this franchise’s undead coffin.

A new directing and writing team fails to shock or scare with a color-by-numbers plot and a meandering, languid wannabe frightfest. A few audience members fired up their phones halfway through a recent preview, a bad sign for anyone hoping for a gripping experience.

A sequel to “The Nun” — the top-earning film in the franchise, with more than $366 million worldwide — was never going to be denied and the sequel hews carefully to the previous success. You could even say it’s haunted by its better precedent.

This time it is 1956 — four years after the events of “The Nun” — and a demon is once again stalking Europe. It’s the same horrific Valak we met last time and suspected didn’t die, despite being splashed by the blood of Christ. “The demon lives,” we are told.

Returning are Taissa Farmiga — younger sister of “The Conjuring” star Vera Farmiga — as wide-eyed Sister Irene, and Jonas Bloquet as Maurice, the French-Canadian hero dripping with charm. The filmmakers attempt to give us more backstory for Sister Irene — mostly flashbacks to her mom — but it doesn’t add much.

New this time is Storm Reid as a skeptical novice who smokes and doesn’t really buy the water-into-wine story. She is well introduced and seems a good foil to Sister Irene’s devoted nun but is soon abandoned and never has her come-to-Jesus moment.

The screenplay by Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing and Akela Cooper sets most of the action in a boarding school in the South of France as Maurice tries to create a new life with a love interest but a terrible secret threatens his happiness. The characters are thin and there’s lots of padding but the ancient towns the location department found are terrifically eerie and foreboding. The fatal mistake is that Sister Irene gets lost in her own film.

Director Michael Chaves, who also helmed “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” oversees a few great moments — a possessed newsstand with all the magazine pages frantically flipping is awesome — but it’s mostly the same flashlights-and-heavy-footsteps stuff. Wait for the quick cut, jump, wait, repeat.

“The Nun II” apes the structure of its predecessor as our heroine needs to find a powerful relic to defeat the demon — and maybe Satan also, who appears as a goat but weirdly can be hindered by a strong wooden door. There’s a Dan Brown-esque feel as Sister Irene searches for clues in ancient Vatican archives.

Is it mere coincidence that this year also marks a truly poor “Insidious” outing? Both these low-budget, Patrick Wilson-connected horror franchises need a good startling. Or CPR paddles.

“The Nun II,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated R for “violent content and some terror.” Running time: 110 minutes. One star out of four.

The Nun II lands in theaters five years and a handful of days after the first film. While The Nun became the highest-grossing entry in the $2.1 billion The Conjuring Universe, critics mauled it, and it accrued the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any film in the franchise.

This ninth entry in the series, which kicked off a decade ago, sees filmmaker Michael Chaves take on directing duties. He’s no stranger to the film series, having helmed 2021’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona.

The big question is, can he deliver a sequel to a spin-off of The Conjuring 2’s antagonist that delivers the goods, makes money, and lands better with critics and audiences?

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Set in 1956, four years after the events of The Nun, Sister Irene, played by Taissa Farmiga, is in a new convent, and all seems good. However, overhearing some of her fellow sisters telling the story of what happened brings it flooding back. Not long after, Sister Irene has a visitor who informs her that there has been a trail of supernatural slayings of priests and nuns that appears to have started in Romania, the location of her last showdown with Valak, the titular demonic entity.

Fearing that the evil might not have been extinguished as initially believed, it is her job to find out what connects the killings, where the nightmarish nun is headed, what the entity wants, and if she is somehow connected to everything that has been going on. Before too long, Sister Irene finds herself at a boarding school that harbors darkness and also happens to provide sanctuary and employment for Maurice, her savior, in the battle with the satanic sister a few years earlier. The school is where Sister Irene will lead the ultimate face-off against Valek to send the demon back to hell once and for all. Maybe.